Reviews

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

The Baen Free Library is a section of the Baen site where a good number of books is offered for free download, as a way to sample authors and their works.  During one of my visits, I discovered the existence of a series of short stories collections, grouped by year of publication: as it often happens, anthologies can be mixed bags, but I found a few stories that truly caught my attention: in my next posts dedicated to shorter works I will review the ones that I liked most in this collection from the best of 2017.

 

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

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

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

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

 

 

My Rating:  

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Reviews

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Short Story Review: THE POWHATAN, by Tony Daniel

The Baen Free Library is a section of the Baen site where a good number of books is offered for free download, as a way to sample authors and their works.  During one of my visits, I discovered the existence of a series of short stories collections, grouped by year of publication: as it often happens, anthologies can be mixed bags, but I found a few stories that truly caught my attention: in my next posts dedicated to shorter works I will review the ones that I liked most in this collection from the best of 2017.

 

 

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

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

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

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: KILL CREEK, by Scott Thomas

 

Horror, like humor, is a very delicate narrative substance and even if the two find themselves at the very opposites of the writing scale, they share the need for fine balance and even finer control if one seeks to reach a believable and satisfactory result.  This is indeed the case with Scott Thomas’ Kill Creek, a story that on the surface seems to share many elements with other horror novels (a haunted house, a group of people who enter it and suffer dreadful experiences, their attempts at fighting the evil, and so on), but in the end manages to defy any prediction and to offer a unique reading experience that surpasses even the highest of expectations.  If the information I found on GoodReads about Mr. Thomas is correct, this should be his first novel, which makes it all the more extraordinary for the skill he exhibits with pace and characterization: I will certainly keep an eye on his future production, because here is a quite promising author in the genre.

A group of four horror writers, each different in personality and narrative mode, receives an invitation from Justin Wainwright, the owner of WrightWire – a site dedicated to horror in all its declinations – to spend Halloween night in the Finch House at Kill Creek, a remote Kansas location: the resulting interview with the authors will be streamed online and serve as much-needed publicity for every one of them. And the four need it because, in one way or the other, their careers are at a crossroads.

Sam McGarver, a man saddled with a dark past that has left him scarred in body and mind, is dealing with writer’s block and has accepted a teaching position to help make ends meet; T.C. Moore has become famous for her dark, no-holds-barred, sexually explicit stories, but a recent encounter with the Hollywood executives in charge of the movie from her latest novel angered and unsettled her more than she can deal with; Sebastian Cole is considered the dean of horror writers, inspiring many to follow in his footsteps, yet he feels that his career is at an end; and Daniel Slaughter made a name for himself with YA horror stories laced with a Christian message of redemption and hope, but his audience is dwindling day by day and his publisher is ready to cut him loose.   Each one of them resents Wainwright’s bold-faced summons and the certainty of deception they perceive in his manner, but the opportunity is too good to be passed over, and the group travels to Kill Creek and the house whose first owner and his lover were killed shortly before the Civil War, giving origin to the tales about the mansion being haunted.

At this point, one might expect the story to proceed over a well-traveled path, with the night bringing uncounted horrors and the people in the house not reaching the next morning alive; instead the Halloween at Finch House flows in a very mundane way, with the sole exception of the mediatic slaughter perpetrated by Wainwright on his guests, as he exploits their weaknesses without mercy to spice up the podcast he so meticulously planned.  Of course some strange occurrences manifest themselves during the night, but all of them can be attributed to the peculiar atmosphere of the house and the personal ghosts each person carries inside.  On the next morning, the group departs to scatter again toward their former lives, and that’s one of the novel’s best angles – the choice of letting them go unscathed, against all expectations. Because the true, chilling horror starts only after they leave the house behind them – or so they think….

Kill Creek is a powerful, well-crafted story that relies more on psychological horror rather than the graphic kind, even though the latter part of the novel does turn quite bloody and horrific (so be warned about that…): yet the explicit violence manages to feel less frightening than the kind visited on the soul of the victims.  A case in point is that of the character driven to kill others in a most shocking way, and yet constantly saying he’s sorry and asking for forgiveness even as he performs his bloody task, the torment of the acts he’s compelled to execute still managing to scar his mind and soul, both betrayed out of their basic gentleness by a force outside of his control.  And that force is exerted by a very peculiar entity, the house itself, that here possesses a definite personality that turns it into another character, one imbued with a profound evil that appears all the more frightening because of its lack of definite origin, not in spite of it.

No reason is given for the house’s profound need of belief in its haunted, creepy nature, yet this insatiable hunger and the way the house can sink its hooks into the victims’ minds and force them to do its bidding is a chilling, unexpected development.  The old mansion appears like a skilled manipulator, one that knows people’s most buried secrets and fears and uses them to maneuver the victims like puppets on strings: the four writers’ back-stories are beautifully interlaced with the narrative and transformed from old ghosts into present terrors that take on shape and substance, breaking the barrier between the real and the imagined, the merely feared and the concrete danger that can hurt, maim and kill.

The experience the characters undergo at the “hands” of the Kill Creek house is one that strips them of their outer defenses and forces them to confront their inner selves, and to change: one might say that they come out of it (those who do, that is…) as very different people – how different, only time will tell, because there is no real resolution to the story, as the last few paragraphs show with a quite unexpected revelation.  Even though, on hindsight, it should not have been so unexpected in consideration of the total lack of predictability that is the leitmotif of this novel.

Highly recommended.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: THE FLOWERS OF VASHNOI (Vorkosigan Saga #14.1), by Lois McMaster Bujold

 

 

After reading Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen, I had to deal with the sad certainty that no more stories from the Vorkosiverse would be forthcoming: that latest novel had the flavor of finality, of the author having closed the door on those characters and their lives, leaving them to continue unobserved by prying eyes.   So I was happily surprised when fellow blogger SJ HIGBEE showcased this novella, a very welcome and quite unexpected find, one I might have missed for a longer time if not for her post, for which I’m very grateful.

The focus here is not so much on Miles as on his wife Ekaterin, which brings an interesting change of pace and also the possibility of observing Miles from an external point of view – and I must say that sharing Ekaterin’s observations about her rambunctious husband, as he engages with their children in target practice with food against the house cat, is just as entertaining as following any of Miles’ adventures, not to mention that it shows how the passing of years and the weight of responsibility have not changed him at all. Thankfully…

The district of Vorkosigan Vashnoi has been mentioned often in the course of the saga, and it’s an interdicted zone due to high levels of radioactivity dating back to the heavy bombardment from a past Cetagandan invasion: the place had been bequeathed to Miles from his grandfather Piotr, probably as a form of not-so-subtle sarcasm considering what the old man thought of the deformed grandson he tried to murder in his crib.  As the story begins, the radiation levels have started to subside, and Ekaterin has enrolled the Escobaran scientist Enrique Burgos – the creator of the (in)famous butterbugs first appearing in A Civil Campaign – to help in the requalification of the area.

Doctor Burgos has bio-engineered a new kind of butterbugs – the radbugs – whose function is to ingest the contaminated flora and soil of the Vashnoi territory, incorporating the radiation into their bodies and slowly but surely taking away the pollutants, so that the region can be made habitable again.  During one of their tours of inspection of the test area where the first generation of radbugs has been released, Ekaterin, Enrique and their ranger escort make an amazing discovery: the area is not deserted, on the contrary there are clear signs of habitation – and someone has been stealing a good number of radbugs…

This very enjoyable novella felt to me like some sort of mirror image of Miles’ adventure in The Mountains of Mourning, where he had to confront the harsh reality of what happened to children born with radiation-induced malformations: however, where Miles had to deal with some tragic revelations that felt much more dramatic due to his own physical problems, Ekaterin’s discovery runs on a lighter path, one where the inherent drama is tempered by humor and the acknowledgement of the fact that Barrayar’s outlook toward those who are not perfect is changing, and for the better.

As always, it was a delight to go back to these characters and place, so that my hope is that this will not be an isolated occurrence and that Ms. Bujold will opt to return again – even in this brief form – to what I consider her best creation.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: WRATH OF EMPIRE (Gods of Blood and Powder #2), by Brian McClellan

 

 

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

My appreciation of Brian McClellan’s storytelling started as something of a slow burn, as I read and liked Promise of Blood but did not feel greatly compelled to move forward with the series – at least not until I had the opportunity to read the first book of this new series, Sins of Empire, and found myself totally engaged with the story and characters, to the point that I went back to the Powder Mage trilogy and started retracing my steps.  Wrath of Empire is not only a worthy sequel to its predecessor, it’s also a huge game changer in the overall narrative sequence and the kind of story that consumes the reader with the sheer need to know what happens next.

Starting straight where Sins of Empire left, this second book of the Gods of Blood and Powder series takes us once again to the continent of Fatrasta, now in the throes of the Dynize invasion: as the attackers try to consolidate their hold on the capital of Landfall, they are also searching for the godstones, the powerful artifacts that will help them resurrect a god as a means of uniting their peoples once more.  Clearly they have not learned anything from the past mistakes of others….   Two of the godstones might be found at the farthest corners of the territory, so our heroes are compelled to divide their forces in the attempt of finding and possibly destroying the artifacts before the Dynize can acquire them: Vlora and her Riflejacks, together with Taniel, head north toward the secluded valleys where gold mining operations are underway, having to balance the need for speed with the secrecy surrounding their mission, which makes things all the more difficult considering the natural suspicion of the miners concerning their claims and profits.  Mad Ben Styke and the Lancers, with the addition of Ka-poel, travel in the opposite direction, constantly fighting with the encroaching Dynize army, while Ben tries to carry on his personal vendetta against the former comrades who betrayed him and sent him to the labor camps.  And lastly, Michel Bravis, former Blackhat and Taniel’s fifth column in Landfall, must remain in the occupied city trying to find one of Taniel’s informants and bring her to safety before she’s discovered.

The three separate narrative threads are interwoven with such skill that the novel quickly becomes a compulsive reading with never a moment of respite, and pervaded with a mounting sense of urgency and dread as the clues pile up and we are made privy to the invaders’ plans and witness the defenders’ apparently impossible task in the face of such odds.  At the same time we see more of Fatrasta: where Sins of Empire, with its focus on the city of Landfall, might have felt more cramped, so to speak, here our knowledge of the land and its history expands as the characters travel through it – and of course the characters are those who get the lion’s share of the narrative, taking on more facets and depth as the story goes on.

Ben Styke is the one who undergoes the greater changes: we first knew him as a mountain of a man gifted with enormous aggressive potential and the kind of physical stamina that made him appear almost invincible, more berserker than simply fearless. His interactions with Celine, the orphan child he befriended in the camps and became his ward, have changed him however, because he finds himself thinking more and more about what consequences his eventual death might have for his young ward. And that’s only the tip of the iceberg: apart from the delightful exchanges between the two of them, where the interaction of grizzled warrior and not-quite-innocent child gives way to several amusing passages, it’s Ben’s quest for vengeance on the men who betrayed him that transforms him and, more importantly, forces him to think about himself and his motivations.  There is something approaching inner pain in Ben’s musings when he considers how his past actions have shaped both his personality and his “legend”, and it’s only in the acceptance of his failings as an individual, and the acknowledgement of old age, that he gets closer to his own long-lost humanity.

The other character who gains more interesting facets is Michel Bravis, who infiltrated the Blackhats for Taniel, playing a dangerous double game in which he was forced to compartmentalize his mind to work more efficiently in his role.  Asked to remain in occupied Landfall, he’s walking on a razor’s edge as he works with his former colleagues to smuggle the families of other Blackhats out of the grasp of the Dynize, while trying to keep those same colleagues from learning that he was a traitor. This difficult balancing act is rendered even more dangerous by Taniel’s request to extract a precious informant about which Michel has very little information: forced to align himself with the Dynize, poor Michel finds his loyalties sorely tested once he realizes that not all of the invaders are bad people and that among them he can find the kind of human connection that his previous work always denied him. This is a man who had to keep to himself as much as possible so as not to blow his cover, and it’s here that we see his profound loneliness and the strong need to belong: if I found this character interesting before, it was this book that made me sympathize with him quite deeply.

Last but not least, Taniel and Vlora enjoy their own limelight as they engage in a spying mission without the support of the Riflejacks: there is something that reminded me of classic westerns as I followed their progress in the isolated mining community near the hiding place of one of the godstones, and if I still have some reservations about Taniel (he started out as a somewhat whiny young man with big daddy issues to morph into an inscrutable person with uncanny powers, who has no qualms about using others to attain his goals), I greatly enjoyed the focus on Vlora as her courage and capacity for self-sacrifice were showcased in the latter part of the story.  I might have had some complaints about the author’s treatment of female characters at the beginning of the Powder Mage trilogy, but I acknowledge that he changed course as the story unfolded and made me completely forget those early objections.

Add to all of that a few momentous revelations (and no, I’m not telling you about whom, it would be quite unfair to even hint anything!) and a final section that literally took my breath away as I feared for the survival of some of the characters, and you will understand why I used the phrase ‘consumed by the need to know’ at the beginning of this review.   The scene is all set for what promises to be a spectacular conclusion to this trilogy, one I will wait for with barely contained impatience.

Well done indeed…

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Short Story Review: FELDSPAR, by Philip A. Kramer

The Baen Free Library is a section of the Baen site where a good number of books is offered for free download, as a way to sample authors and their works.  During one of my visits, I discovered the existence of a series of short stories collections, grouped by year of publication: as it often happens, anthologies can be mixed bags, but I found a few stories that truly caught my attention: in my next posts dedicated to shorter works I will review the ones that I liked most in this collection from the best of 2017.

 

 

FELDSPAR (from Best Free Stories 2017)

The first story to catch my undivided attention in this anthology is one featuring the exploration of Mars: with the increased interest focusing toward the red planet in recent times, it’s only natural that so many works would choose to set their background on it.    The titular Feldspar is a remotely-operated rover, one of many landed on the surface of Mars to collect ores and carry them to a big smelter working to provide the necessary materials for the colonization effort: these rovers’ handling has been turned over to very committed and enthusiastic workers – gamers from all over the world who bought the operating rights to their rovers and became the “most dedicated workforce on Earth”.

Blake is one of those gamers-turned-operatives and through Feldspar he’s contributing to the effort of Project Regolith from his home in San Francisco: like many of his brethren, he’s playing this sort of serious game while living like a virtual recluse, but unlike others he has a dream and a goal, that of one day moving to live on Mars. To him the project is not just a divertissment, but a serious endeavor and one that moved ever closer to reality when the first manned mission landed on the red planet and started setting some permanent presence there.

For this reason, once he detects something troubling on the surface, he wastes no time in checking out the problem and discovering the presence of an injured astronaut whose oxygen and battery power might be depleted before the rescue party can reach her. The race against time and the unforgiving environment of Mars suffers from a false start of sorts because NASA does not look too keen about having a civilian (and what’s basically a nerd, at that) involved in their operations, but Blake’s preparation in the field and the help he can provide soon change their mind, so that the battle for astronaut Kate survival can be engaged with some hope of success.

I enjoyed this story very much, not least because of the suspense created both by the situation and by the nerve-wracking time lag of 8 minutes that makes communications – and commands sent to Feldspar – very difficult in that specific situation.  A story to be fully enjoyed, indeed, so that it’s no surprise that it won the Grand Prize in the Jim Baen Memorial Short Story Award 2017: a well-deserved victory.

My Rating: