Reviews

Review: THE RUBY HEART (Slaves of the New World #2), by Ashely Capes

 

 

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

The two siblings Thomas and Mia we got to know in the previous book in this series, The Red Hourglass, continue on their path in search of freedom and of answers about their past.  Set in a dystopian version of what I believe used to be Australia and is now a dry wasteland ruled by a dynasty of self-proclaimed kings, the Williams, the story is centered on Thomas and Mia, former slaves in king Williams’ retinue, who have managed to escape and are now on the run from the king’s relentless hounds.

In the first book, we got to know the two siblings a little: Mia is blind but possesses some precognitive powers and the ability to summon a mysterious creature of light that acts as a sort of protector, while Thomas shows a strong affinity with steel, that he can bend and shape through his superhuman strength.  There were hints about some sort of manipulation worked on them by the king’s chief Alchemist, Silas, but that’s one of the many mysteries still surrounding the couple while showing that the story’s background, despite its clear steampunk vibes, also offers some touches of magic and the evidence of a former higher civilization that is now more myth than actual memory.

After the breakneck pace of the first book, when Thomas and Mia’s energies were focused on staying alive and out of reach of their main pursuer, the lady Elizabeth and her monstrous SandHog, a steam-powered behemoth able to travel over any kind of terrain, The Ruby Heart allows us a closer look on the siblings’ characterization, something that until now suffered a little because of the need to advance the plot in their endless flight, and it does so by separating Thomas and Mia and setting them on different courses: the sense of pressure is still high, granted, but here we learn more about what makes the two tick, besides the abilities that define them.

The discovery of an organized rebellion against the Williams’ iron-fisted rule and of the Clara, an airship that might help them achieve their escape, compels the two fugitives and their new friend Ethan to find someone able to pilot the ship, and while looking for clues toward that goal, the two are found by lady Elizabeth’s men: Mia and Ethan manage to escape while Thomas is taken prisoner aboard the SandHog. As the stakes get higher for both narrative threads, the focus shifts often on the personalities of Thomas and Mia, allowing us a deeper look into their mind-set, and that’s where I felt a substantial change in my perception of them.

Until now Mia seemed the weaker of the two, not just because of her blindness or the often paralyzing visions that offered more question than answers, but because of her total reliance on her brother for physical and moral support.  Thomas’ absence now forces Mia to count more on her own capabilities and to trust her inner strength with more assurance: of course her blindness requires guidance, which Ethan provides, but as far as decision making or facing the dangers that challenge them – either in the real world or in the dreamscape that she keeps visiting more and more, as if her psychical powers were growing as well – Mia appears to advance toward being her own woman, and not her brother’s subordinate

On the other hand, Thomas almost seems to flounder: captivity and the uncertainty about Mia’s fate do of course undermine his spirit, but his forced stay on the SandHog hints at the beginning of a Stockholm’s Syndrome, especially once Elizabeth makes some advances in his direction and Thomas – despite the loathing for his implacable pursuer – is unable to remain indifferent to the woman’s charms.  On his defense it’s necessary to point out that Elizabeth appears to follow her own agenda, one that is not exactly consistent with king Williams’ goals, and that might allow some ground for confusion, but it was my definite impression that Thomas’ physical strength – which here plays a pivotal role in the SandHog’s quest – does not go hand-in-hand with an equal strength of character, something that becomes dramatically clear with the huge, appalling blunder he makes at the end of the novel, one that fuels the cliff-hanger with which the novel closes and one that might bring dramatic changes to the course of events.

It will be interesting to see how the story plays out in the next installment, now that some of the notions I had seem to have been overturned and that more questions than answers lie on the table, waiting to be resolved…

My Rating: 

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Reviews

Review: THE CRUEL PRINCE (The Folk of the Air #1), by Holly Black

 

My imprinting as a reader for any description of the fae and their realms can be ascribed to Seanan McGuire’s October Daye series, so it would be honest to admit that I tend to compare to it any book or series dealing with faerie.  Honest but probably unfair, since any novel should be judged on its own merits…   In the case of The Cruel Prince, though, I found such a fresh, new approach that I never felt the need to compare it with other similar works, and simply let it enfold me in its compelling story, and enthrall me completely.

The twins Jude and Taryn are seven years old when their world comes crashing down around them: a mysterious man, one who shares the same peculiar looks as their older sister Vivi, appears out of nowhere, kills their parents and takes the three shocked girls with him.  He’s Madoc, their human mother’s fae husband and Vivi’s father, come to exact his vengeance for the woman’s desertion and to take back his daughter where he believes she belongs.  Jude and Taryn, even though they are fully human, are included in the ‘package’ out of a quite peculiar sense of duty, and brought up as Madoc’s own children.

When we see them again, after such a shocking beginning, they are in their late teens, and the long years spent in faerie have changed them deeply: children are indeed nothing but adaptable, which is also a crucial survival trait, but the twins have each evolved their own methods and goals to belong in an environment that is not exactly friendly to humans, and will always look on them as outsiders, no matter the high standing of their adoptive father.  Where Taryn tries to blend into the background, adopting the rules and mannerisms of the fae, striving to be like them despite the obvious differences, Jude prefers to stand out, and dreams of one day being a knight and earning the acceptance and respect she craves through feats of valor.  Even more interesting is their sister Vivi’s continued defiance, both of the rules and of their father: she, who would not have any problems in belonging, is the one who could not care less about faerie, and instead prefers spending time in the human world, as a human girl.

This fascinating dynamic is complemented by the equally fascinating relationship of the twins with Madoc, the balance of hate and love, fear and respect that have been in constant warfare with each other over the years: if the girls are unable to forget the bloodbath that made them orphans in one cruel stroke, they at the same time see Madoc as a fair, if stern, surrogate parent, one whose approval they seek – even against their deepest inclinations.  If one wanted an in-depth study of Stockholm Syndrome, it would not be necessary to look farther than here…

All of the above is centered in an exploration of the realm of faerie that is nothing short of fascinating: the unthinking cruelty of the fae is – if you will allow me the term – a matter of record, since the legendarium surrounding them portrays the fae as so alien, so remote from any human behavioral pattern, as to divest them from any romantic ideal.   But The Cruel Prince goes several steps beyond that, painting the picture of a realm where danger lurks around every corner, where every morsel of food or drop of drink might prove fatal, where enslavement, murder and treason are as commonplace and as accepted as the air one breathes.

This background is leisurely explored, together with the characters’ journey, in the first half of the book, at which point both the story and the characterization take a huge leap forward and evolve into a breathless pace that’s full of surprises and reversals: to say that I literally flew through the second part of the novel would be a massive understatement, when I realized that the greater part of the attraction came from observing Jude as she navigates through the events, always keeping her goal in mind and ready to pay any price to reach it.

Jude is not exactly a sympathetic character, and even though I understand where most of her attitude comes from, I could not avoid being horrified at some of her choices and the ever-present calculation of the odds that would best serve her in her quest. Yet, she remains a fascinating figure, and one I could not avoid rooting for: it’s possible that my acceptance of her comes from her own honest acceptance of what she is – at some point, Madoc tells her that denying herself would prove more painful than giving in to her deepest instincts, so that when those killer instincts are needed she chooses to employ them, not just to fulfill her ambitions, but to do some good for the realm. It’s a sort of balancing act, a way of seeking an ethical side to her ambitious drive, and for me it works as it would not for a character based in the mortal world: Jude is as much a child of faerie as she is a mortal, and her way of taking the best of both worlds and making it work for her is brilliant, and believable.

This duality is not reserved for Jude alone, though, because almost every other character in this story is a study in contrasts, showing both a dark side and some frailties, or even redeeming qualities, that make them delightfully complex and impossible to pinpoint or fit into a specific mold, allowing for interpersonal dynamics that are ever-changing and unpredictable.  My only disappointment comes from the fact that a few of them – like Cardan, the titular prince – are not explored enough and are somehow kept on the sidelines in favor of Jude, but I hope that the next novels in the series will correct the aim and give us a better understanding of these characters as well.

And speaking of next novels, given that The Cruel Prince closes, if not with a cliffhanger, with great uncertainty about how the future will develop, I am more than looking forward to see where the author will take us next.  As a first encounter with Holly Black’s work this was a very auspicious one, and I know it will not be the last…

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Short Story Review: THE STREETS OF BABEL, by Adam-Troy Castro

 

(click on the link to read the story online)

 

This was one of the most distressing stories I ever read, and not because of any overt or implied violence, since there is effectively none, but because of the feeling it engenders, something that goes well beyond the powerlessness and anguish experienced by the protagonist.  The setting is probably the future, a future where cities are animated, ever moving entities roaming the planet in search of humans to people them.

As the story starts, an unnamed man wakes up conscious that the city has finally overtaken him: after days of desperate flight over the plains, he had to give in to exhaustion and rest, and that’s when the city built some walls around him, trapping him.  Once awake, the man is driven by the shape-shifting pavement into the direction chosen by the city, washed, dressed and channeled together with hundreds or thousands of other hapless captives through the motions of the activities everyone can observe in a modern city.  The only difference is that humanity has lost the meaning of such activities – like sitting at a computer and completing various tasks – together with the ability to communicate with one another: the language each person uses is not understood by others, and even if it were, the city would not allow such interaction, ever driving its captives toward fulfilling the senseless jobs it assigns them.

From the musings of the man we learn that the human race has somehow regressed to a very primitive state, and the only sign of civilization comes from these moving cities, able to create any environment and any object or piece of clothing that people might use: how that came to pass, no one knows, but what we see here paints a very gloomy picture. And the dismay turns to horror once we are shown what the city needs those people for, why it hunts the savages hiding in the plains and keeps them for a while in the travesty of the life in a modern urban context…

A terrible vision, indeed, but one that is also a very compelling tale: reading it will be a challenge, but it’s one I encourage you to face.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: THE SKIN TRADE, by G.R.R. Martin

 

Reading, or in this case re-reading, the stories contained in the two-volume collection Dreamsongs always reminds me that G.R.R. Martin can speak in many voices, not just that of epic fantasy: The Skin Trade, a long novella or short novel depending on the point of view, is a perfect example of Martin’s wide variety of styles, mixing in this case both horror and urban fantasy in a story that’s quite compelling.

Willie Flambeaux is a collection agent, an unremarkable kind of guy saddled with asthma and a paunch, but he suddenly finds himself at the center of dreadful events as his friends are being murdered in the most savage way – as if mauled by an animal. He asks his friend Randi Wade, a private investigator, to look into the matter, even though he knows this will raise some dark ghosts from her past: twenty years before Randi’s father, a police officer, was killed by some kind of animal, so the official report went, an animal that was uncannily able to withstand being shot with the entire load of Wade Senior’s gun, and disappear.

As the two of them try to make sense of the evidence in the recent murder spree, and to overcome what looks like blindness or lack of interest from the police, we learn that Willie is a werewolf – or, as he prefers to say, a lycanthrope, and that there is a good number of these creatures in the city.  What’s even more alarming is that the victims of the ghastly murders were lycanthropes themselves, and that therefore – as the pack leader and unofficial city owner Jonathan Harmon warns Willie – there is someone or something that is hunting the hunters.

One of the most fascinating sides of this story, aside from its fast, compelling pace, is the new outlook adopted for the werewolf myth: the transformation is not dependent on the moon, as the werewolves can change at whim, and that in the shifted form they are more powerful, have more stamina and can overcome any physical problem present in their human aspect.  For example, Willie’s asthma disappears completely when he becomes a wolf, and his friend Joan – the first victim – though paralyzed as a human, was able to move and run when she changed.   Still, the lycanthropes are sensitive to silver, and that detail will prove very important in the course of the story…

Another element I enjoyed is the banter between Randi and Willie, who have known each other for a long time and despite their differences have managed to build a friendship that’s based on mutual respect and trust, even though it’s hidden under Randi’s verbal barbs and Willie’s futile but still enthusiastic attempts at seducing the investigator.  There is a slow buildup and an equally slow reveal about the creature that is killing werewolves all over the city, and the last part of the story is a breathless rush that will keep you turning the pages compulsively.

And on a side note, you can also appreciate this novella in audio format, where Randi Wade is played by Australian actress Claudia Black (a.k.a. Farscape’s Aeryn Sun), an experience I wholeheartedly recommend.

Reviews

Review: ARTIFICIAL CONDITION (The Murderbot Diaries #2), by Martha Wells

 

The theme of rogue A.I.s is one of the classics of science fiction, and most of the times – if not always – the rogue goes on a rampage, killing humans with gleeful abandon, or its cybernetic equivalent. And even though this unescapable trope, in a delightful meta reference, fills much of the serialized fiction Murderbot so enjoys, this is not the case with our Sec Unit character: yes, it has gone rogue after being liberated by the humans it saved in All Systems Red, but the reason for the escape lies in its desire to better understand its nature and to explore the roots of the incident in which it allegedly killed the people it was entrusted to protect.

Artificial Condition sees a further step in Murderbot’s evolution: where the first installment was all about gaining some measure of freedom from the centralized control, a feat made possible by the Sec Unit’s hack of its governor module so that Murderbot could enjoy its favorite soap operas when not actively engaged in a task, now the outlaw construct wants to learn what truly happened in that fateful mission in which it might have turned against its human charges – Murderbot possesses few information about it due to the system wipe sustained after the incident, but it’s determined to go to the roots of the matter and learn what it can.

Thanks to a few exterior modifications that might make it pass as an augmented human, Murderbot hops between systems hacking the software of unmanned transports, so as to leave no traces, but it finally finds its match in ART, the evolved A.I. of a science shuttle: ART (an acronym created by Murderbot on the basis of its perceived attitude, and whose meaning you should discover for yourselves 🙂 ) quickly bonds with Murderbot through a shared enjoyment of its favorite serials, Sanctuary Moon and Worldhoppers, and soon becomes invested in the Sec Unit’s search for the truth, helping it blend more successfully with humans and giving it pointers on the best ways to avoid standing out in a crowd.

The sarcastic, often scornful conversations between the two A.I.s are indeed the best part of this novella, with ART somehow being Professor Higgins to Murderbot’s Eliza Doolittle thanks to its more experienced worldview and badly hidden sense of superiority, which irks the Sec Unit to no end.  It’s also fascinating to observe their different opinions about humans: where ART is clearly fond of them, as testified by its rapid attachment to the serials’ characters and its profound distress when something bad happens to them in the course of the saga, Murderbot is more wary of them and tries to have as little to do with them as it can, even though I still maintain it’s a self-imposed distance, because once it takes a cover job to more easily access a space station, it shows – again – a deep commitment to its charges, one that in my opinion goes well beyond any kind of programming as a Sec Unit.

But they were clients. Even after I’d hacked my governor module, I’d found it impossible to abandon clients I hadn’t chosen. I’m made my agreement with these clients as a free agent. I couldn’t leave.

The fact that Murderbot loves to lose itself in fictional series portraying humans shows its deep – if unconscious – fascination with them, something that goes beyond the need to interact with them, something that seems connected to the organic components of the construct and is in constant strife with the artificial parts: there is a sentence that I found quite enlightening and that to me showed clearly that conflict, one that I still wonder if it’s typical of all Sec Units or just of this particular Sec Unit – when Murderbot undergoes further modifications to better pass as an augmented human, it looks at its new self and realizes that the changes were very effective, and that it finds it difficult to accept them because “it would make it harder to me to pretend not to be a person”.

Murderbot’s struggle with its identity goes hand in hand with the difficult, painstaking search for clues about the incident that caused its system wipe, and the two threads seem to be interconnected, because discovering what really happened might offer important clues about why Murderbot is different from other Sec Units, and ultimately what led to its decision to hack the governor module – a device we already saw could be used offensively and not just as control software.  Given what Murderbot discovers on the space station, and the events portrayed in All Systems Red, it’s not hard to imagine some kind of far-reaching conspiracy whose goal is still nebulous – and I’ve been wondering time and again if the governor module hack was not a way for Murderbot to distance itself from it all, even though the A.I. gives completely different, more mundane reasons for it, which is hardly surprising considering the inner dissembling it is often prone to.

The jury is still out on this detail, though, and hopefully we’ll learn more in the next installments of this series that is turning out to be both intriguing and delightfully amusing. My hope is also that ART might reappear at some later date, because I loved it for its snarky sense of humor and its wonderful interactions with Murderbot.

Thankfully, the wait for the next novella is not long…

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Vacation time…

 

 

It’s once again that time of the year when I take a break from everything to enjoy my (hopefully well-earned) vacation, to be spent in the company of friends and two adorable, friendly dogs who always manage to put a smile on my face.

Even though I have scheduled a couple of reviews so that not much dust will accumulate on this neglected blog, I will be unable, due to an unreliable internet connection,  to comment on your always intriguing posts or to follow your advice about books to be added to my towering TBR pile, so please accept my apologies in advance.  I will try to make it up to you once I’m back.

In the meantime, I wish you all many hours of happy reading and many encounters with wonderful books!  See you soon….!

 

 

 

 

Reviews

Short Story Review: THE SNOW TRAIN, by Ken Liu

 

CLICK ON THE LINK TO READ THE STORY ONLINE

 

I’m always impressed by the different kinds of moods I encounter every time I read a short story by Ken Liu: even though I’ve only sampled a handful of them, each one presented a unique situation, quite unlike the others, a testimony of this author’s wide narrative range.

Young Manoj is a teenager hailing from a war-torn country in the far East: after a number of harrowing experiences in refugee camps, he lands in Boston with the foster family that adopted him more out of expedience than kindness, since a greater number of dependent children meant a speedier process in the UN visa for the USA.    Manoj can’t shake the feeling of always being an outsider: his adoptive family treats him well, but through a distance; the questions from school-mates about his origins come more from biased ignorance than a true desire to get to know him: he’s unable to call the place where he’s living, home.

Then one day the city falls prey to a massive snow blizzard, and while everyone is rushing toward the comfort of home, Manoj decides to brave the cold because “suddenly, the people who normally filled these streets, never doubting their right to strut through them, were fleeing as refugees. If he stayed behind, he would, for once, not feel out of place”.  It’s a bizarre notion, and one that will swiftly be replaced by fear as snow and an icy wind batter him from all sides: taking refuge in a public transport system station, Manoj will find himself on a very unusual train ride in company of an equally unusual conductor, and learn that there might be a way to battle his isolation and feelings of displacement.  As the mysterious Charlie, the Snow Train conductor, will tell him “…everyone leaves a mark on this city, even if they don’t know it, even if they think they’re just passing through, that this isn’t home”.

The best kind of story is the one that makes me think, and this one is no exception: sometimes in these smaller offerings there is much more than the simple sum of their words, which is the main reason I like to take time away from longer works to explore short stories.

 

My Rating: