Reviews

Short Story Review: WISE CHILD, by Sharon Lee & 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 2016.

 

 

 

WISE CHILD

I have long been aware of Lee and Miller’s Liaden Universe series but never got around to reading any of the books, so this short story has been my introduction to it, and a very interesting one: if the glimpses I caught here are any indication, the Liaden Universe series is going to be an intriguing read.

Wise Child tells the story of a ship, a sentient ship being taught about itself and the world by a mentor: the society surrounding this small event does not look like a very nice one, since it appears from the beginning that mentors are practically slaves to some unspecified institute, that uses them – and uses them cruelly – to bend ships’ consciousness to the will of their future masters.

Disian, this is the name of the ship, has established what I can call a loving relationship with its mentor Tolly – impersonally designated as “Thirteen-Sixty-Two” by his masters – who has not only been instructing Disian in managing its awareness and in the technicalities of ship’s operations, but also imparting notions about ethics and compassion and art. It is because of the latter that, at the very beginning of the story, Tolly is being violently punished under the gaze of a horrified Disian, whose protocols bar it from intervening in any way.  It’s in this instance that we learn all we need to know about this society, where appreciation of beauty is irrelevant, since “appreciation of work, and the simple pleasure of obeying its betters – these are the attributes required”.

What follows is both the story of an escape from exploitation and slavery and a coming-of-age journey for Disian, that learns the bittersweet price of freedom and adulthood, and the bloody one of independence.  A captivating introduction to what promises to be a complex universe, and one I intend to explore soon.

 

My Rating: 

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Reviews

Review: COLD WELCOME (Vatta’s Peace #1), by Elizabeth Moon

After backtracking through the five novels of Elizabeth Moon’s Vatta’s War series, I was finally able to get back to Cold Welcome, the first volume in the author’s new cycle called Vatta’s Peace, one that I started reading some time ago before realizing that I was missing too much back-story for my comfort.

Granted, one could start with Cold Welcome without undue problems – and I know many have done so – since the author leaves some well-placed signposts that help the readers orient themselves, but getting to this point after learning to know Kylara Vatta and the way she grew, as a person and as a commander, through the previous series, is a different kind of experience, a more rounded, deep-reaching one.

The book starts a few years after the events in Victory Conditions: following the decisive success against Turek’s pirates, Admiral Kylara Vatta has expanded and consolidated her Space Defense fleet, shaping it into a solid and respected organization.  Returning for the first time to her home planet at the request of her formidable Aunt Grance, Slotter Key’s Rector of Defense, Ky boards a connecting shuttle with her former Academy commander, the man who expelled her after a diplomatic incident, and from the very start something looks suspicious: the shuttle must perform unplanned course corrections due to a strong weather front, and some unexpected technical problems force the pilots to effect an emergency landing.  From that point on, all hell breaks loose and Ky finds herself and the survivors of the crash marooned in a harsh, desolated land marked as “terraforming failure” by the planetary charts.  It becomes immediately clear that the crash was the result of an act of sabotage (or rather several acts, since the perpetrators wanted to be certain of reaching their goal), so that Ky and her surviving comrades are not only fighting against tough environmental conditions – first on life rafts and then on an Arctic-like tundra – but against intentional damage on their survival gear.  Not to mention the traitor (or traitors) hidden in the group…

This is where, I believe, knowledge of the events that shaped Ky Vatta into the person we see in this novel is essential, because otherwise she might come across as a know-it-all kind of Mary Sue instead of the individual who managed to overcome a long chain of difficulties and personal losses, becoming a capable, level-headed leader.  Knowing what Ky went through in the past, first with her unjust (and very possibly contrived) expulsion from the Academy, and then as a merchanter-turned-soldier as she fought Gammis Turek’s pirates, helps in contextualizing her actions and the hard decisions she must take for the survival of the group.  Again, Moon does a good job in providing the new readers with all the necessary clues without cluttering the narrative with long exposition, but there is a great difference between being told about certain occurrences and reading them as they happen in Ky’s life, changing her outlook, shaping her personality and building some much-needed experience.

And that experience is what she and her group need, badly, in what looks like a desperate situation, worsened by some instances that appear more and more suspicious as the clues build up: the area where the shuttle crash-lands is one where surveillance satellites and communications don’t seem to work; some of the emergency supplies for the life rafts are either incomplete or damaged; and the behavior of some of the survivors doesn’t always add up. Never has Ky been so alone in her previous undertakings: before she always had a loyal crew to support her, and friends or family within reach, while now she must shape a group of strangers into a cohesive unit working together to survive, and the only known entity she can count on is her aide, a very uptight woman more focused on proper behavior and military decorum than on what really matters in such a situation. Not the best start, indeed…

The extreme conditions with which the group must deal offer a great chance for character exploration, so that the departure from the usual space opera or military SF themes one might expect leaves room for a very different kind of story, one where we can watch how people react to punishing environmental conditions and the very concrete possibility of death before any rescue can be effected. In this Moon truly excels, because she sketches the various personalities through the hardships they go through, and also manages to gift us with some surprising developments: there are a few scenes where the undercurrents of personality clashes come to the fore, and I enjoyed both the verbal skirmishes those entailed and Ky’s reactions, that were always quite collected despite the personal strain she was enduring at the moment.

If the narrative thread of the survivors is a fascinating one – especially when they make a quite unexpected discovery on a supposedly barren and uninhabited landmass – there is an equally intriguing storyline where Ky’s family and friends and the local authorities are concerned: even in the face of the grim odds presented about the survival of the shuttle passengers, Grace, Stella and the rest of the family are not ready to give up the search, so that when Rafe is able to confirm that Ky is indeed alive, thanks to their ansible connection, the Vattas resume their attempts to reach the survivors, finding several obstacles on their path.   Clearly, the recent purge has not rooted out all the rotten apples from Slotter Key’s management structure, so that Grace, Rafe & Co. need to move with quiet stealth to avoid being thwarted in their efforts.  There is a mounting sense of dread running through both narrative paths, which makes for a compelling read and a very engrossing story.

All of the above would be enough for a very satisfying read, but it’s not all one can find in Cold Welcome, because of the discovery Ky and the other survivors make in the not-so-deserted wasteland where they crashed: it’s a puzzle that will need to be unraveled (and probably the focus of the next books) and that promises to be as fraught with danger as the previous pirate chase has been.  Something I’m happily looking forward to.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Short Story Review: TOUCHSTONE, by Sonia Orin Lyris

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 2016.

TOUCHSTONE

A quite unexpected fantasy tale in a collection where I believed I would find only SF stories, and one that I enjoyed very much.  It focuses on two young brothers whose father, one of the king’s trusted generals, leaves for war and never comes back, though he won the decisive battle.

As a form of compensation, the king decides to accept the two kids’ oath of fealty and enrolls them into the Cohort, the group of children from which one day will come Princess Cern’s closest advisers. It’s a move that raises more than one eyebrow, since the two youngsters – Pohut and Innel – come from a commoner family and have no backing whatsoever at court.  Worse still, the Cohort, a sort of college for the chosen of the highborn families, is a place where the children should learn how to handle life at court – in other words, they tend to practice prevarication, ruthlessness and duplicity.

The two brothers find themselves out of their element in more ways than they can count, or, as the author describes it, “they were dropped into the world of the Cohort like a pine cone onto a thundering river”, but the elder Pohut – mindful of his father’s last words to him before leaving for war, “make me proud” – decides that they will face all hardships together and refuses to bow to the widespread propensity for nastiness, keeping a low profile and biding his time.  I leave to you the pleasure of discovering the rest of the story…

This is a delightful, touching tale that I enjoyed very much and that has compelled me to look for more works from this author.

My Rating:  

Reviews

Review: ALL SYSTEMS RED (The Murderbot Diaries #1), by Martha Wells

My only encounter so far with Martha Wells’ works has been through the first volume of her Tales of the Raksura series, an intriguing combination of fantasy and science fiction that somewhat defies genre definition, and one I intend to return to as soon as I can.  I was therefore very curious to read this novella that promised to be quite different, since I enjoy seeing authors flex their proverbial writing muscles in different environments, and I can now say that All Systems Red was a very intriguing experience.

On the surface, this novella looks like the deceptively straightforward story of a scientific team exploring an alien world that finds itself threatened by what looks like incorrect information and equipment failure, which is later revealed as an attempt to kill them all to prevent discovery of an unlawful operation.  The team is assisted, as required by the Company – the corporate entity supervising every planetary survey – by a SecUnit, an armed and armored android tasked with their protection. This particular SecUnit, though, is different from the other Company-supplied bots, because it’s been able to hack its own governor module, and therefore to act independently from any directive it receives.

This mutinous act from the SecUnit, that calls itself Murderbot because of a previous incident, is what defines the whole narrative, taking it away from any predictable path and moving it in unexpected – and sometimes deliciously funny – directions.   The story is relayed by Murderbot itself, and as unreliable a narrator as it seems to be, the android speaks in a delightfully cynical voice that sets the tone from the very start, since the SecUnit did not hack its governor module for any dark purpose: all it wants is to be independent from the Company’s nagging presence, with its annoying updates and checks, and be free to enjoy the huge cache of serialized shows it downloaded for its own enjoyment.

This is a surprisingly human desire (how many times have we wished to spend a day lounging in front of the tv, instead of having to go to work?), and it sets from the start the parameters for the android’s personality, one that is revealed bit by bit during the course of the story and that manages to make Murderbot a very sympathetic character, one that’s quite easy to root for. If on one side Murderbot is not very fond of humans and tries to avoid their company as much as its duties allow, it does so because of its underlying inability to understand them fully, and in the end its fixation with the serials it’s so fond of might be a way to work toward that understanding through vicarious, less hands-on means.  In a way I was reminded of a painfully shy adolescent trying to grasp the finer points of social intercourse by watching tv….

What emerges from the fast-paced narrative is the progressive – and at times even unwilling – change in Murderbot’s psychological profile, which is not so surprising with some hindsight: a bot whose higher aspiration is to be free of superior directives so it can indulge in soap-opera binges is far too human to remain a detached machine for long. Not that our character does not try: we learn soon enough that it feels uncomfortable in the company of humans, that the necessity to lower its visor and show them its face makes it extremely nervous and exposed, which made me wonder how much aware Murderbot is of its difference from the basic SecUnit models, and convinced me of its partial unreliability as a narrator.

As the situation gets ever more dangerous for the science team, we see Murderbot change its attitude toward its humans – just as they change their own attitude toward it, accepting it as one of their own with surprising ease – so that it becomes not only their guard but their protector. The desire for freedom of choice, when paired with the need to safeguard the team’s lives (and incidentally its own), morphs into the first inklings of free will, that at first manifests itself in the ability of thinking up a scheme for the group’s survival and later becomes the desire/necessity to explore this amazing changes without further external influence.

It’s a fascinating journey from many points of view: because of the construct’s growing self-awareness, of course, but also thanks to Murderbot’s peculiar voice that is an irresistible mix of snark and logical thinking, of innocence (as far as interpersonal relations go) and craftiness.  It was a delight following the unit’s journey, and I more than look forward to learning more in the upcoming novellas for this series, which I hope will also expand on the tantalizing details we just glimpsed about this future society.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

The Book of Never Kickstarter

Ashley Capes is a prolific Australian author writing mainly fantasy, with a few forays into other genres like mystery and horror – and he’s also a poet: a true Renaissance writer, indeed…

Among my reviews of his works you will find his continuing story of the adventurer Never, published in a series of five novellas; if you don’t remember them, here is a quick link to Never’s first five adventures:

THE AMBER ISLE

A FOREST OF EYES

THE RIVER GOD

THE PEAKS OF AUTUMN

IMPERIAL TOWERS

Today I’m happy to spotlight Never’s journey once again, since Mr. Capes has launched a Kickstarter project for the sixth book in the series – click on the link below to learn more about the project and how you can participate:

BOOK OF NEVER #6 KICKSTARTER

And as a further enticement, here is a preview of the cover for the book, whose title is The Phoenix of Kiymako: as usual the art of these covers is truly amazing.

Here’s to Never, and his continuing adventures!  

 

Reviews

Review: THE WOLF (Under the Northern Sky #1), by Leo Carew

I received this novel from the publisher, in exchange for an honest review.

My luck with debut novels seems to keep holding strong, and Leo Carew’s The Wolf is the latest in this string of fortunate encounters, an epic fantasy story set in what looks like an alternate version of Britain, called Albion, where baseline humans and outlandish warrior races compete for primacy through bloody wars.

Readers are plunged straight into the midst of one of these wars, pitting the Sutherners against the Anakim, a northern tribe of veritable giants, long-lived and quite strong thanks to the inner bone plates that armor their chests: knowing that superior numbers will not be enough against the Anakim’s battle prowess, the Sutherners devise a trap that works successfully, forcing their foes into an unheard-of retreat after their leader, the Black Lord, is killed in action leaving his 18-year old son Roper in command of the army.  The defeat weighs heavily on the Anakim’s morale and gives Uvoren, the highest-placed general and a renowned hero, the opportunity to lay the blame on Roper and seize the leadership: Roper will have to learn the subtleties of politics and authority very quickly as he fights a war on two fronts – the inner one, where his clash with Uvoren fast escalates into deadly territory, and the outward one, as the Sutherners, emboldened by the recent victory, rekindle their expansionist plans.

The Wolf is a novel that satisfies both in world-building and in characterization: in the island of Albion the river Abus works as a demarcation between the Sutherners and the Anakim, the former viewing the latter as monsters, fallen angels, barbarous savages, while the Anakim see their historical opponents as weak and lacking in honor.  Both are wrong, of course, mostly because of ignorance on either side: we readers instead enjoy the opportunity to get to know them better, and to see how land and living conditions can shape a people and forge their mindset.

The South enjoys a more agreeable climate, fertile lands, and therefore its inhabitants have created a more laid-back society, but also one in need of demographics-related expansion, so they inevitably turn their gaze toward the territory of their long-time enemy and, through the old strategy of demonizing the adversary, mount a campaign of invasion, plunder and destruction with the goal of beating the Anakim into submission. The northern warriors, on the other hand, have built their society on military prowess and on a strong link with the land they dwell in, a symbiotic bond that in some cases prevents them from giving in to the invading army, choosing death rather than relinquishing their foothold.   

A the heart of the Black Lands, the Anakim territory, lies the Hindrunn fortress, a massive construct of stone that no enemy could breach and inside which the Anakim seek not so much a form of security as a way of isolating themselves from the rest of the world, the microcosm in which they feel truly attuned to the land in which they live.  The glimpses we are afforded inside the Hindrunn’s walls speak of a complex, lively society that belies the Sutherners’ prejudice about the Anakim’s savagery.

On this fascinating background move some interesting figures, drawn with such skill that the main antagonists – Roper the fledgling Black Lord and Bellamus, the upstart who gained command of the Sutherner army – come across as equally sympathetic so that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to pick a favorite.     Roper is young and quite inexperienced: his father enjoys little narrative space before his demise in battle, but he seems like a harsh, unforgiving man and one not too prone on passing on some wisdom to his son.  So being both inexperienced and young, Roper initially flounders in his role as ruler of the Black Lands and risks to be easy prey to Uvoren’s power play; he rebounds quite easily though, finding a few allies and heeding any sensible advice that his directed his way.  He learns on the fly, and he’s as ready to treasure what he learns just as he’s ready to acknowledge his mistakes: as ruthless as he needs to be, he remains able to elicit the reader’s sympathy all throughout the book, growing in depth and complexity as the story progresses.

Bellamus, for his part, must struggle against his humble origins to emerge in a society that pays more attention to circumstances of birth rather than skills: his liaison with Queen Aramilla plays an important part in his ascent toward command of the Sutherner army, but he reaches the goal through sheer determination and a years-long study of the Anakim, for whom he harbors more than the interest of a military commander analyzing his adversary.  There is an uncommon form of respect, almost fascination, in Bellamus’ keen interest in all things Anakim, so that, once he realizes than despite the long years of study he only scratched the surface of this adversaries’ culture, and did not understand what the Anakim soul truly is, the ensuing frustration weighs more heavily than any defeat.

With such focus on battles and military prowess one might think there is little or no space for women in The Wolf, but although they are not exactly prominent, what we see of them in Anakim society makes for intriguing glimpses I hope will be given more space in the next novels.  While Sutherner women seem relegated in the traditional roles this medieval-like milieu allows them, Anakim women, though apparently enjoying only a supporting position in their society, are afforded more freedom and are shown repeatedly as its backbone: one of the glimpses I was talking about concerns the office of Historian, the women to whom the totally oral traditions and past of the Anakim are entrusted, since they have no written language worthy of that name; they are the holders of their people’s collective memory and so the custodians of all that makes the Anakim what they are.

And then there is Keturah, the woman Roper marries to sign a political pact and who quickly becomes his partner, his confidante and his best ally: when we first meet her we see her as quite outspoken and bold, then we slowly learn about her cunning political sense and her ability to create a web of useful relationships.  The fact that she’s universally treated with respect and even affection by her peers speaks loudly about this side of Anakim society, and is another detail that begs a deeper look.

All of the above might seem like scattered notions, and in a way they are because it’s difficult to take in all of the complexities of this novel and the story it tells, but I believe that The Wolf must be enjoyed as I did, with as little information – or preconceptions – as possible: this way it will be easier to get happily lost in this fascinating world. And to come out of it with a strong desire to know more.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Short Story Review: ADRIFT, by Terry Burlison

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.

BAEN 2016 FREE STORIES

ADRIFT was the very first story in the anthology, and a very promising beginning at that: set during the construction of a space station in Earth orbit it showcases the hard life of the techs actually building the structure and the support people taking care of them during the work shift.  Dan “Cole” Colton is a three-tour veteran, despite his young age, and when we meet him he’s scolding one of the recruits because he’s still unable to think about the differences in motion, mass and momentum one finds in space, as opposed to the gravity well.

The incident over, Cole moves aside to refuel his power pack, and that’s when tragedy strikes: an impact sends him careening away from the station, damages his suit’s instruments and leaving him briefly unconscious. Once he comes to again, he realizes he’s quite far away from any form of rescue, and tries to prepare for the inevitable end, not knowing that his co-workers and the station’s personnel are working frantically to retrieve him – alive and well, if possible.

What follows is both a tale of survival in the most hostile environment man even faced, and a study of humanity in extreme conditions: what I liked most was the strong sense of community that grows among people living and working so far from the only home humanity ever knew, and the way everyone is giving their all to bring Cole back.  The figure that stands out the most is that of Shay, one of the operatives in Command and Control: she’s new and feel quite unsure of herself in this new surroundings, but the emergency seems to unlock as-yet-untapped resources that make her pivotal to the operation.

And then there are the descriptions of space, and Earth, that color this story with a few beautiful touches of… almost poetry, for want of a better description, and that contribute to make this short tale a very satisfying read.

 

My Rating: