Reviews

Short Story Review: THE JAWS THAT BITE, THE CLAWS THAT CATCH, by Seanan McGuire

 

It’s no secret that seeing the name of Seanan McGuire (or that of alter ego Mira Grant, for that matter) engenders a sort of Pavlovian reaction in me, so that reading her works becomes a compulsive need.  When I saw that she was one of the contributors to LightSpeed Magazine I wasted no time in clicking the link to this story, another example – as if I needed it! – of this writer’s wide range of storytelling that knows no bounds.

THE JAWS THAT BITE, THE CLAWS THAT CATCH

(click on the title to read the story online)

In this instance she retraces a well-known literary background, with the unnamed main character leaving the safety of the woods that are her home to embark on a quest to save her captive sister.  It took me a while to understand the exact context here, probably because I’m not all that familiar with it (it’s been a while since I read that book), but little by little the clues piled up and helped me see where McGuire was headed: once there, it became a fun ride – that is, as fun as this author’s delightfully evil mind can provide, of course.

Describing the character’s journey would give away too much, and this is a story that must be experienced as it unfolds, so I will concentrate on some of the images that caught my attention, like the description of the mist in her home woods, a mist that’s dangerous and deadly: “the mist threw up a tendril, trying to grab the bird’s leg and drag it down”.  Once a hapless creature is trapped in it, it becomes easy prey for scavengers that are not affected by the mist itself: as an introduction to a cruel, dangerous world this brief sentence works quite effectively to set the overall tone of the story.

Opposite this mysterious woods stands a city, the place where the protagonist’s sister had been taken, and there’s an interesting contrast here, because we learn that the city dwellers look on the inhabitants of the woods as monsters, therefore as less worthy of consideration – and survival. The bitter musings of the character say a great deal about this state of affairs as she considers that “monsters didn’t have homes to defend or sisters they loved more than life itself. That would make us too much like them, and then we would be less effective as excuses for the things they did to themselves”.

If you never read anything by Seanan McGuire, I urge you to try this story: it will give you a good insight on her style and writing “voice”, and I’m certain it will be an intriguing journey.

 

My Rating: 

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Review: FIRST WATCH (The Fifth Ward #1), by Dale Lucas

I received this novel from Orbit Books, in exchange for an honest review.

The theme of the more seasoned cop being teamed with a rookie he can’t initially stand is one of the main staples of detective literature, movies and tv series, but no one had so far tried to translate it into a fantasy background, and First Watch is probably the first example of this mashup, one that works well exactly thanks to its unusual setting.

Rem is a young man of noble origins who was feeling constrained by his pampered life, and therefore decided to seek adventure out in the big, unknown world: he ends up in Yenara, a colorful city rich with possibilities – and dangers.  Finding himself almost destitute, and incapable of landing any kind of work, Rem wakes up in the city’s jail after a drunken brawl: a series of bizarre circumstances leads him to his enrollment in the Wardwatch – the local version of a police force – and teamed up with veteran Torval, a grizzled dwarf Warden whose partner was recently murdered in mysterious circumstances.

Yenara is a bustling city filled with many kinds of creatures, as humans of various races, orcs, dwarves and elves coexist more or less peacefully in its streets where crime and honest business rub elbows, and despite his privileged education Rem is poorly equipped to hold his own, as testified by his imprisonment.  Even though he’s still guilty of a measure of naiveté, he’s also quick on his feet and this helps him gain some points with Torval, whose irritable demeanor hides a good, honest soul, and a person ready to grant his new partner some slack.

The two start their association by investigating the murder of Torval’s former mate, and in so doing they gather some unexpected clues concerning a series of disappearances and killings that might be related: it’s quite amusing to observe how bureaucracy and territorial politics are a constant, no matter the time period or the place.  As we are used to seeing in modern police procedurals, there are rules and limitations that hinder an investigation and sometimes force an officer of the law to go against them, ruffling a few feathers, in order to see justice done, and in this First Watch is no exception.

As the two unlikely partners move across the city in search of answers we learn much about Yenara, which appears like a crucible of races and customs that come together in a sort of free zone where everything is possible, everything is allowed (if you hold the right license…), making the inevitable parallel with modern New York – the city that more than any other one is the perfect place for a police story – quite clear.    The pace is fast and the story moves along between brawls and fights to the death, with a few sidelines of attempted murder on the two partners, rolling nicely toward the final showdown, one that however promises more adventures for the two unlikely – but by now well adjusted – partners.

If I enjoyed this story, and found myself often smiling at Rem’s and Torval’s antics, still I could not avoid finding a few details that spoiled the overall flavor of the novel.  My main point of contention is with the descriptions: the author is quite fond of adjectives, indeed, never employing just one where two – and sometimes three – can be crammed in to sketch any given person or object.  So you are not simply told that someone looks despondent, but rather that he sports a sad, mournful, desolate face; or a shady character might look hostile, aggressive and pugnacious, instead of simply truculent (the examples are mine, not directly drawn from the text, but can give a good idea of what I found).   Such… richness of detail is not necessarily a bad thing, but when it’s constantly repeated with every instance in which a description is required, it becomes distracting and ultimately slows the narrative flow down.

Something similar happens every time Rem sees someone, or witnesses an event, because in his mind he sort of makes up a back story for the action being shown, with no clues whatsoever about where it all came from: if he sees someone hurrying along with a worried face (again, the example is mine), he thinks it might be a clerk who has forgotten to run an important errand for his master, and is afraid of the consequences.  Since none of these flights of fancy are useful to the economy of the story, are not substantiated by the narrative, nor are they of any interest to the readers since they concern the story’s… extras, they are more distractions than background features, and the sheer repetition proves more bothersome than helpful.

And last, the final revelation – while interesting and bolstered by a quite epic battle between the Wardens and their quarry – is offered through lengthy explanations by the bad guy in chief, a method I always found mildly annoying, not unlike the main staple of many B-movies where the Evil Mastermind illustrates his Dastardly Plans to the captive hero before killing him – which never happens because the hero always  manages to even the odds.   Finding this narrative device here damped a little my enjoyment of the story and somehow ended it on a less than enthusiastic note.

Nevertheless, these are all personal considerations and should be taken as such: on the whole, First Watch is an entertaining read whose best feature is the relationship between two polar opposites, whose differences give origin to an engaging story that will put a smile on your face. And sometimes this is more than enough…

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Short Story Review: RATES OF CHANGE, by James S.A. Corey

 

RATES OF CHANGE, by James S.A. Corey

(click on the title to read the story online)

 

When I saw the name of James S.A. Corey on the list of authors whose short stories are hosted on LightSpeed Magazine, I dived straight in: Corey (the pen name of writers Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) is the author of The Expanse, one of the best space opera series of recent times – both in books and on television – so I hoped that Rates of Change might be based on that universe. It wasn’t, but this did not diminish my appreciation of it.

The premise: in the future, it will be easy to swap one’s consciousness into another body with the same ease with which we change dresses – it’s not clear from the story how these bodies are obtained, whether they are cloned and stored waiting for… occupancy, or if they are bodies of people who have given them up, either voluntarily or not.  What matters here is that it’s something of a common practice, so common that the exchange is not limited to human bodies, but can be effected with animals as well: one of the story’s characters, Diana, retraces the steps that brought her son Stefan to splice himself into the body of a manta ray as a form of fun experiment with his friends. An accident caused Stefan’s brain to be explanted from the manta and placed in a sort of ICU gel bath while waiting for recovery, and Diana waits for the procedure to complete its cycle and to know whether her son’s consciousness is still intact or damaged beyond repair.

Both Diana and her husband are now living in bodies that are not their original ones: she had to switch once to avoid dying of a devastating cancer, and again when she did not feel at home in the new body; her husband changed his in an attempt at a fresh beginning when his wife’s depression made it apparent that she was feeling like an intruder in her changed body.  Diana’s very fragile balance, one that progressively estranged her from her husband, friends and acquaintances, is further endangered by what happened to Stefan and she is terrified by the long-range consequences on identity and sense of self that can come from this far-too-easy way of escaping the troubles of one’s corporeal form.  As she muses, “everything is a lie of health and permanence, of youth permanently extended”, and seems to negate the expected course of flesh’s decay, the natural rhythm of life.

It’s a fascinating philosophical question, one that offers no easy answer – as it should be – and ends on a consideration that, from my point of view, builds a slight tie with one of The Expanse’s themes, that of what makes us human even when our bodies deviate from the accepted norm, as it happens to Belters in micro-gravity: the authors remind us that “being human isn’t a physical quality like being heavy or having green eyes” and that we need to look beyond the skin-deep levels.

Thought-provoking, indeed.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

TV Review: DARK MATTER Season 2 (no spoilers)

 

When last year I wrote reviews for the two “summer shows” from SyFy, KillJoys and Dark Matter, I sensed a stronger potential for growth in the former, while the latter seemed headed toward a more conventional, if still entertaining, path. Season 2 however overturned my predictions for both shows: if Killjoys did not exactly disappoint, it did not prove to be equal to its promises, while Dark Matter showed a solidity of stories and characterization that was a very welcome surprise.

In the first season we met six people (plus and android) who wake up from suspended animation on a strange ship, without memory of their identities and past.  As they try to come to terms with the situation and what little information they can glean about themselves – apparently a band of criminals hired for dirty operations, with the exception of the young stowaway girl who’s not part of the original crew – they also face the problems created by the dichotomy between their former selves and the people the are now, thanks to the clean slate created by amnesia.

In this second season, the crew of the Raza faces a different set of challenges: they have acknowledged their violent past, but feel more comfortable with the personalities they have developed since waking up, and prefer to proceed from there (with one notable exception, but that’s something of a spoiler, so I will not say more about it).  Having accepted both their shady past and the somewhat uncertain present, the group chooses to look forward, to plan for the future rather than delve into the past, even when parts of it come back to bite their proverbial behind.

Shared dangers have coalesced the crew into a team – almost the embryo of a family, I’m tempted to say – and they have learned to look out for each other, while at the same time maintaining their individual quirks and, on occasion, less savory personality traits: as I said in the review for Season 1, there must be something in one’s personality makeup that is similar to “muscle memory”, something that comes into play through the unconscious, like an autonomous reflex.  This time, however, those reflexes come into play for the good of the team, and not for an individual’s egotistical drives and even if it doesn’t mean that the former “bad guys” have turned into angels, still there is a huge difference between who they are now and who they used to be, and they seem to prefer putting some distance between their present and past selves.

The background that was sketched in the first season of the show takes more substance, and presents a galaxy that’s quite far from the standards of more idealistic future shows: there are far too many struggling colonies or mining outposts that try to eke out a living despite the pressure of the corporations that seem the real ruling power here, and the corporations themselves are at war with each other using mercenaries like the team on the Raza to undermine their rivals’ powers.  Even the Galactic Authority, the entity that acts as a police force, is not immune from power plays, to the point that they are far too easily corrupted and even when one of their officers doggedly pursues the crew of the Raza, he appears motivated more by personal drives than simple love of justice, making me often think about inspector Javert from Les Miserables in the blind pursuit of his quarry.  This last element is quite dramatically evident in the last episode of the season, where he apparently throws away the chance of stopping a terrorist operation in favor of capturing his elusive prey.

If character development and well-timed action are the main components of this series, and even more so in this second season, the plot is equally capable of evolution, branching off from the main theme that was at the root of the story and developing into several individual narrative threads that still remain firmly grounded in the main arc, giving it a multiplicity of points of view that keeps the story itself always interesting.  What’s more, Dark Matter is not afraid of taking extreme measures with its set of characters: in the very first episode, one of the original six is removed from the equation in a very surprising game change that’s not at all usual in serialized television. The addition of new figures to the crew, and their non-permanent status, reinforces the awareness that no one might be safe here, that we should not take for granted the survival of any individual character.

For this reason (or should I call it warning?) when the final episode of the season closes on a very difficult situation, with the members of the crew separated from each other and facing potential annihilation on a doomed space station, the ending cliffhanger takes on a further layer of uncertainty and makes us wonder about the changes that we might witness in Season 3.

In short, Dark Matter might still not shine for originality of plots or narrative devices, but it does move forward with a form of enthusiasm that’s quite refreshing, making us care about the characters and involving us with the narrative threads: I’ll say it again, and this time with even more conviction – it might not be a revelation, but it’s a solid story that deserves more than one chance.

 

My Rating for Season 2: 

Reviews

TV Review: KILLJOYS Season 2 (no spoilers)

 

When I reviewed the first season of this science fiction series, I was full of enthusiasm for the potential shown by its brief 10-episode run. And how could it be otherwise, when the story focused on a small team of bounty hunters, working in a remote area of space?  The overall feel of the setting reminded me a little of Firefly, thanks to its definite frontier flavor and the complex social and political threads running in the background, and what’s more the main characters were quite promising: Dutch, an ass-kicking heroine with a brutal past, who managed to overcome the trauma of her upbringing as an assassin and to remake herself into a whole, independent and self-sufficient person; Johnny, her tech-wiz team-mate and the “softer side” of their working equation, one that created a strong, family-like bond between them that is one of the series’ stronger points; and D’Avin, Johnny’s brother and former soldier, traumatized by his military experiences (and probably some dark experiments), trying to move past his PTSD.

The overall tone, in that first season, was lively and irreverent, with the episodic nature of the show paving the way for a more complex narrative arc that Season 2 was bound to develop further – and the premises were indeed there, from the brief appearances of Dutch’s devious mentor Khlyen, still stalking his former pupil and trying to bring her back  into the fold, to D’Avin’s flashbacks to some traumatic event, that caused him to lash out quite dangerously in the most unexpected of circumstances; from the monopoly exerted by the system’s wealthy families on the available resources, to the exploitative activities of the Corporation managing the workforce.  All these elements promised some fascinating developments, and an expanding scope for the story, but unfortunately some of those promises went unfulfilled…

The very fist sign that something had changed – and not exactly for the better – was in the new opening credits: both the chosen music and the appearance of the characters as graphic novel versions of themselves represented a puzzling, and somehow jarring surprise, and to me they did not look at all in sync with the series’ previous “mood”.  That Killjoys did not take itself very seriously was a given, and it was part and parcel of its charm, but this new introduction seemed… cheap, for want of a better word, and at odds with what had gone on before.

But these purely aestethical considerations would have been forgotten if the story had moved forward in the direction hinted at in the first season: sadly, it fell prey to its own need for excessive complexity that was potentially interesting, yes, but also needed something more than the season’s scant 10 episodes so the various threads could have the time to grow into an organic and well-defined story. The compression of so many components into such a short time span worked against the story, making it appear at times slipshod and confusing, and it also worked against the characters – the strongest element of the series so far – robbing them of many chances for growth and expansion, and forcing them to almost become caricatures of themselves.  This last is particularly evident with D’Avin: where he started as a mentally scarred veteran, he becomes almost a parody of himself in Season 2 – having been subjected to further experiments, he’s now a sort of invulnerable soldier, thanks to the green fluid running through his veins. The circumstance in which this is revealed (the seduction of bartender Sabine) fails to be as dramatic as it was intended, and remains the most cringe-worthy segment of the whole season.

Dutch fares a little better, but not much: the series of circumstances that puts an unwelcome distance between her and Johnny seems to make her lose some focus, and Dutch appears to be reacting to, more than acting on, the problems that the group has to face. What’s worse, Khlyen’s increased presence on screen does not reinforce Dutch’s sense of self-assurance and independence, but instead seems to weaken it when he’s given a personal story and a non-selfish motivation for his actions: by somehow bringing them together, instead of keeping him as a form of evil manifestation, Dutch’s inner strength appears diminished, and unfocused – and given how she literally exploded on the scene in the first season, this is not something viewers completely appreciate…

Johnny is the only one given an interesting – and evolving – arc: it was clear from the start that his nature was not completely suited to his work as a Killjoy, and through his association with Pawter, the slum doctor who used to be a scion of a ruling family, he finds a… mission, a purpose that appeals to his need to make a difference, to change things for the better.  When the relationship with Pawter takes on romantic overtones, we see Johnny dealing with some inner conflict as he chooses a divergent path that takes him away from Dutch and the team: on one side he knows he’s working toward a noble goal, on the other he feels that the need for secrecy upsets the team’s dynamics and often causes him to lie to his long-time partner, and that’s a price that weighs heavily on him.  If the rhythm of the events had not been so frantic, Johnny’s turmoil could have been explored in greater depth than it was, and that’s another regret I came away with at the end of the season.

Despite these disappointments, I will keep an eye on the show (I know that the third season is airing now, so I might be able to see it in the near future), in the hope that the creative team manages to overcome the hurdles of season 2 and finds a much firmer footing for both story and characters.  It would be a pity to see Killjoys’ promises fizzle into nothing…

 

My Rating for Season 2: 

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Vacationing Owl…

 

The suitcase is packed, the tickets bought, everything is ready for a well-deserved vacation, so this bookish owl is waving goodbye to everyone for the next two weeks.

I have scheduled a couple of posts, just to keep my blog’s muscles in tune (but do blogs have muscles?  that’s an interesting question…) but I might be unable to reply to your comments – or to comment to your always intriguing posts – during my absence, so I’m making my apologies now, and hope to be able to do it all once I’m back.

Keep reading great stories, keep having fun and… see you soon!

Reviews

Review: DOWN AMONG THE STICKS AND BONES (Wayward Children #2), by Seanan McGuire

If Every Heart a Doorway was a great revelation – not so much of Seanan McGuire’s writing skills, since for me they are a given, but rather of her amazing range in storytelling – this new installment in her Wayward Children series subverted, again, my expectations.

I might have looked for more detail on Ms. Eleanor West’s home and its pupils, or on the stories of their long road to recovery after coming back to our primary world, but what I found instead was a sort of of… upside-down tale, if you want, one where the “before” has just as much impact on the characters as the time in the world beyond the doorway, or the difficult adaptation once the protagonist find themselves back in their place of origin.

This is mainly a story about abused childhood, not in the sense of physical or mental torture, but – worse still – about the way in which parental expectations can mold children, bending them in shapes and directions contrary to their true nature and leanings.  That such shaping can be carried out in the name of the kids’ own good, therefore hiding (or giving an alibi to) the parents’ selfish desires, makes this story all the more poignant in its subtly understated cruelty.

Chester and Serena are not parent material by a long shot: wrapped in their individual worlds – work, career and social standing – that sometimes overlap giving a sort of meaning to their marriage, they at some point decide that to complete the perfect picture presented to they world they need a child. Serena wants the perfect girl, one to be dressed and pampered like a favorite doll; Chester wants a boy, one with whom he can share sports and manly pursuits. They are however gifted with twin girls, Jacqueline and Jillian, so promptly proceed to shape them into the mold each one desires, in an ultimate show of unconscious defiance against fate: Jacqueline ends up being the doll, frozen into her perfect dresses that must not be mussed or dirtied, while Jillian is driven toward sports and a more carefree, boyish attitude.  This creates a rift between the sisters, one that effects their actual separation once they stumble into the magical world accessed through their grandmother’s trunk in the attic, and this rift will have terrible consequences…

While I was reading Jacqueline and Jillian’s formative journey, I was struck by what came across as barely repressed anger and contempt toward these selfishly distant parents, wondering more than once whether the author was drawing her models from some real life example she witnessed firsthand: my experience with her writing has helped me learn that McGuire never “preaches” to her audience, letting the story speak for itself (something I greatly appreciate), and this is the case here as well, but still the depth and intensity of feelings – that quickly took hold of my own reactions as well – goes quite beyond the usual scale, hinting at something more profound and with higher emotional impact.

Like bonsai being trained into shape by an assiduous gardener, they were growing into the geometry of their parents’ desires, and it was pushing them further and further away from one another. One day, perhaps, one of them would reach across the gulf and find that there was no one there.

The “monsters” the two sisters encounter once in the Moors, beyond the doorway, are indeed scary – the Master much more than Dr. Bleak, and that’s all I’m going to say, because they must be discovered on their own – and require the two girls to change and adapt to survive in the weirdly frightening environment, but at the same time they give Jacqueline and Jillian the freedom to choose what they want to be, to take steps in the direction they want to go.  You could say that both the Master and Dr. Bleak love their wards, and care for them – even in the twisted way that’s the norm in the Moors – just as their real parents don’t: Chester and Serena’s great sin is to be incapable of love, and – as McGuire tells us in what sounds like an open accusation – to have taken that ability from their daughters.

“It must be awful to have such a dorky sister,” said the girls in their class to Jacqueline, who felt like she should defend her sister, but didn’t know how. Her parents had never given her the tools for loyalty, for sticking up or standing up […]

This is a story that insinuates in your mind and soul and leaves deep traces (or should I call them ‘scars’?), whether Jack and Jill’s plight has a personal resonance for you or more simply draws you in because of its compelling development.  At times, it broke my heart, but I would not have missed it for anything in the world: no one can pull you into their worlds like Seanan McGuire, indeed.

 

My Rating: