Reviews

Review: PAPER AND FIRE (The Great Library #2), by Rachel Caine

I quite looked forward to this second book in Rachel Caine’s Great Library trilogy, and I was not disappointed: the story advances toward what I envision as the final showdown between the Library and those who feel the need to break the shackles it imposes, and there are a good many breath-taking moments and harrowing escapes, not to mention a few important revelations. Yet I did not feel the same level of involvement as I enjoyed with the first volume, and for a number of reasons that taken singly do not amount to much, but all together do indeed cast some shadows on an otherwise engaging story.

The book starts a brief time after the end of its predecessor, showing how the group of Library postulants we got to know in volume one is trying to settle into the new roles assigned to them after graduation: Jess and Glain have been enrolled in the Garda, the Library’s military arm, while Khalila and Dario are on their way to become full-fledged scholars; their former teacher Scholar Wolfe and his partner Garda Captain Santi, who played such a pivotal role in the postulants’ education, have somewhat faded into the background.  The glaring absence of Thomas, arrested by order of the Library for the “sin” of having designed a printing press, and now presumed dead, and that of Morgan, relegated in the Obscurists’ Tower because of her abilities, weighs heavily on everyone’s mind – and most notably on Jess’.

The possibility first and then the certainty that Thomas is alive, imprisoned and most surely tortured (as it happened to Wolfe in the past), drives Jess and Co. to mount a rescue operation that will see them facing extraordinary risks and, what’s more important, becoming fully aware that the Library is quite different from the image of the shining beacon of knowledge it presents to the world: for Jess, the scion of a family of book smugglers, this realization comes as a lesser shock in comparison to his friends, particularly when they come to understand – in one of the most powerful scenes of the book, set in the Black Archives – that the work of the Library in the last centuries has rather been that of suppressing knowledge, rather than protecting it.

 

“This is the graveyard where they buried our future.”

“How many? How many times was this created and cut down? They’ve been destroying it over and over, all this time. All the time.”

 

In a parallel with the growth arc of a young person, where Ink and Bone was, for the characters, a journey of discovery and the first step toward maturity, Paper and Fire embodies the age of rebellion, the need to move against preconceived notions and rules imposed from above, to obey the commands of heart and conscience rather than the laws whose profound injustice becomes clearer with every passing moment.  And indeed, what the group of friends learns along the way is that the Library has no regard for human life, even well beyond the maxim about a book being more valuable than a single person: from the barbarous suppression of knowledge and technologies that might undermine the Library’s power, to the appalling practice of segregating Obscurists and trying to generate more, and more powerful ones, through selective breeding, the Library comes across in all its heartless devotion to its own survival, and the will to dominate, rather than to be the protector of human wisdom.

Given all the above, it might look strange that I did not enjoy this second volume as much as I did the first, but there were a few details that kept bothering me at a subliminal level, interposing some distance between me and the story instead of the total immersion I enjoyed with book 1.  For starters, in the first 25-30 percent of the book the pace seems to be dragging a little: granted, Jess and his friends are trying to collect clues about Thomas’ survival and the possible location of his prison, so they face some virtual blind alleys and spend a great deal of time speculating on what little they already possess, which is not very conducive to fast-paced action.  Still, it looked to me as if the story was unable to find its right path.

Then the characters: we learn nothing new about them, about how their respective experiences in the “real” world have changed them.  Khalila is still serious and driven; Dario is the usual smart-mouth with delusions of grandeur; Glain the solid warrior who seldom speaks; Morgan the tormented soul prisoner of her own Obscurist powers. Scholar Wolfe is as scathingly cynical as always, masking his inner torment, while Santi stands there as his rock.   And Jess, the one on whom the story focuses the most – sometimes to the detriment of the others’ development – still feels like an outsider looking in, the imprinting derived from his family’s careless treatment affecting his determination to open his heart to others.  The only exception to this are his resolve to rescue Thomas, the only person he feels comfortable in calling ‘friend’, and his newfound… ninja powers concerning the Library’s automatons – something that could have been awesome for one or two instances, but sadly loses its impact with each new repetition, no matter how dangerous it is for Jess, or how daring he appears.

My reservations notwithstanding, Paper and Fire is an enjoyable read, particularly in the second half where the stakes are raised higher and higher and our group of rebels – because this is what they were fated to become from the start – has to choose whether to close their eyes to blatant injustice or to act against it, and therefore against the Library: going back to my comparison about the coming-of-age journey, their decision is tantamount to defiance toward one’s parents, and as such it cannot be undertaken lightly or without dramatic consequences.

This second book in the Great Library series ends in a huge cliffhanger, one that managed to counteract the mild dissatisfaction I felt for the story and to rekindle my eagerness to move ahead toward what promises to be a stormy finale. Now that the “middle book syndrome” is over and done with, the road can only get smoother…

 

My Rating: 

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Reviews

Short Story Review: THE FACE IN THE WINDOW (Powder Mage 0.7), by Brian McClellan

Another fateful meeting is at the core of this story, that between Taniel and Ka-poel, two of the main characters from the original trilogy: Field Marshal Tamas’ son lands on the coast of Fatrasta (the land we get to know better in the new novel Sins of Empire) to learn more about the world, presumably, but no sooner has he set foot on solid ground that he learns Fatrasta has rebelled against the Kez in search of independence, and Taniel promptly enlists in the army to fight the Kez, against whom he holds a bloody grudge, and also to prove his mettle.

The Fatrastan rebels don’t fare so well against their oppressors at first, and the only advantage they have is the chosen battle ground: the Tristan Basin is a huge expanse of treacherous, deadly marshland peopled by fierce beast like swamp dragons – reptiles as big as a horse, capable of snapping a man in two with their powerful jaws.  Unfortunately the Kez are in greater numbers, they are better prepared and – worse – they have a Privileged sorceress with them, which turns Taniel’s first encounter with them into a life-and-death confrontation.  Only his training and the help of the mute red-haired girl he’ll later know as Ka-poel can make the difference in his chances for survival.  Taniel’s goal of killing the Privileged through his powder mage ability of aiming truly at a great distance will be the turning point of this initial skirmish, and will also be his first success as a magic-enhanced sharp-shooter.

I found this story very interesting on several levels: first, I learned more about Fatrasta and the road toward the independence that is a given fact by the time in which Sins of Empire takes place. There are a few details here that will be expanded in Brian McClellan’s latest novel, not least the first glimpse about the Palo inhabitants of the marshland, and the fierce determination of the oppressed Fatrastans.    Even more appealing is the encounter between Taniel and Ka-poel, one that starts on the wrong footing as the young man is initially unable to determine if this strange girl is a friend or a foe; as their understanding of each other grows, despite Ka-poel’s inability to speak, the bond that starts to form between them is forged through the need to defeat a common enemy and a slowly building trust.

What most caught my attention, though, was a closer look into Taniel’s personality: my first impression after reading the first book of the saga, Promise of Blood, is that of a somewhat objectionable person, one with a tendency toward… well, not exactly whining, but still one with some huge chips on his shoulder.  Now that I’ve learned more about what made him the person we later meet in the full novel, I think there is much more to Taniel than meets the eye and having by now read the second volume, The Crimson Campaign, I feel more inclined to cut him some slack.    Clearly, one of his problems might stem from the fact that it’s not easy to be the son of such a famous man as Field Marshal Tamas, and that he wants to prove himself because of his own qualities instead of enjoying some reflected light from his father.  And a very enlightening look at his developing personality comes from the very end of this story, where he contemplates his first kill and the effect it had on him:

 

You’ll feel guilty about that first cold, calculating kill. […] You’ll feel guilty on the second one, too, said his father’s voice. And the next. I lost that guilt around my twentieth, and I think part of my humanity died with it. Hopefully, my boy, you’ll keep it longer than I did.

“I didn’t,” Taniel whispered.

 

It’s always a pleasant surprise when I find my opinions changed by some new information, and more than ever I’m intrigued by this series and its fascinating facets.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: THE KING’S BLOOD (The Dagger and the Coin #2), by Daniel Abraham

Despite my best intentions (road to Hell and paving stones…) I waited almost a whole year before returning to Daniel Abraham’s fantasy series, and now that I’ve read this second volume I hope I will not make this mistake again, because what looked quite promising in book 1 has turned here into a well-crafted, compelling story peopled with characters whose further definition becomes pure reader’s delight.

The King’s Blood resumes where The Dragon’s Path left, following the characters that were our eyes and ears in this world, although none find themselves at ease in their own circumstances: Cithrin bel Sarcour, the former ward of the Medean bank, has managed to create her own branch in Porte Oliva – thanks to the funds successfully saved from the destruction of the Vanai branch – but finds herself under the thumb of an auditor from the central headquarters, a woman with an accountant’s small mind and no flair for the risks that have made Cithrin such a formidable banker. Marcus Wester, former soldier and now Cithrin’s bodyguard and protector, is also chafing in the role of enforcer for the Porte Oliva branch, and while he’s devoted to Cithrin and her well-being, he’s somewhat unhappy, victim of a formless restlessness he’s not yet ready to acknowledge. Dawson Kalliam, one of the chief advisors of Antean king Simeon, has managed to prevent the coup that would have killed the king’s son and heir and put Antea at the mercy of their nearest neighbor, but Simeon’s failing health and the shifting political landscape force him to revisit his loyalties and question his principles.  And Geder Palliako, the young, ridiculed nobody that proved instrumental in defusing the attempted coup, and who rose to an unpredictable position of power, finds himself with an even heavier burden on his not-so-strong shoulders…

More than the first volume of this series, this second installment drew me into the world Daniel Abraham created: where The Dragon’s Path had the responsibility of introducing the readers to Antea and the main characters, The King’s Blood is able to solidify this background, conferring it a much-needed width and depth, and it does so not so much through lengthy descriptions and verbose information, but by having the characters interact with the world itself, by allowing the reader to observe it through their eyes and their different points of view.  Following their journey, being part of their thoughts and experiences, we see this place in all its complex richness and in its different aspects: from the bustling commercial chaos of Porte Oliva to the royal seat of Camnipol to the open vistas of the wilderness marked by the ancient jade dragon roads, this is a place that comes to life as if it were another character, with its changes in personality and looks.

And characters are indeed the strong point of the series, carrying and advancing the plot in a beautifully organic way, and always surprising the reader, the case in point being represented by Dawson Kalliam: in the first book I had him pinned as something of an authoritarian, someone with an eye always turned toward past and traditions, but as the story progressed I felt some growing sympathy for him, understanding how his attachment to honor and duty defined him.  Here he finds himself faced with some difficult decisions and a very questionable choice that – despite its dire consequences – invests him with the deep humanity that I felt was somehow missing from his makeup.  Much of it came of course from the interactions with his wife Clara, whose direct POV is introduced in this novel to my great appreciation: Clara is an amazing character, because while she adopts the deferential role assigned to women in this society, she is a very able and subtle mover and shaker, and finally in this book her skills and intelligence are showcased as she deserves.  There is a sentence where the author seems to foreshadow this, and it’s one that made me smile in appreciation when he wrote that “smoke seeped out of her nostrils like she was some ancient dragon hidden in a woman’s flesh”. Clara is indeed a dragon lady, and I look forward to seeing how her story will move forward.

On the other hand, Marcus Wester feels… diminished, for want of a better word: here is a man who needs a mission to truly feel alive, and he now feels that Cithrin has no further need of his protection, so that he’s now almost adrift in a sort of limbo.  It does not help that he has not resolved his feelings toward her, because if he started seeing her as the image of his long-dead daughter, there are moments when he seems to view her in a different way.  This inner conflict results in a rash decision subverting his long-held principles and pitting him against his second-in-command and longtime friend Yardem: what will come out of this development still remains to be seen.  And Cithrin herself is in a state of flux: no more the sheltered ward of the Medean bank, no more the frightened young woman protecting the precious cargo from doomed Vanai, she needs to grow into her own skin and finds herself hemmed in between the contemptuous attitude of the bank’s auditor and Marcus’ solicitous protectiveness, and is clearly chafing at both. Her solution to the impasse will bring her on a path that, so far, only planted a few seeds whose growth I’m eager to see.

But of course the main focus of interest remains Geder Palliako: there is nothing more dangerous than a man with a grudge given a position of power, and Geder possesses a long list of grudges indeed. If in book 1 I saw the danger of his giving in to the need for retribution, here he positively frightened me: he is a man who has lived most of his life in loneliness, and with little experience of the outside world, and now he wields enormous power, a power he’s afraid of, making him the easy prey of advisors with their own agenda. It’s difficult to pinpoint my feelings for Geder, because if at times I feel deep compassion for him, for what his life was before, and if I see the profound loneliness afflicting him – one that’s expressed in his easy, almost-brotherly relationship with young prince Aster, probably the only person he feels comfortable with – still I can’t help but recoiling at the unthinking carelessness about the consequences of his often merciless decisions. On one side there is the frightened, isolated young man, and on the other the dangerous monster he’s becoming, and as a reader I kept oscillating between these two extremes without being able to choose how I really felt.

As these amazing characters move forward with their individual journeys, the story keeps building up details, both big and small, that are clearly going to have far reaching consequences: the best feature of this series, as far as I can tell after the first two books, is the sensation that the author is placing his pieces on the board and that the game will gain in complexity and depth as it progresses.  Already The King’s Blood feels more complex and more focused than its predecessor: if this trend keeps up, I know that there is an engrossing story waiting down the line – and this time I will do all that I can to discover it as quickly as possible.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

TV Review: STAR TREK DISCOVERY – first (spoiler free) impressions

 

There is no doubt that Star Trek: Discovery was one of the most anticipated TV series for this year, with curiosity reaching higher levels at each delay in the release date, and expectations running the whole spectrum from eagerness to dread, the latter more easily found in the group of old-time fans who were sorely disappointed by latest productions like Enterprise on the small screen or the J.J. Abrams movies on the big one.

I believe these are mostly people whose first significant contact with televised science fiction started with Star Trek (either the original series or one of the later ones) and who found themselves profoundly inspired by the ideal of a galaxy-spanning Federation whose main goals were the exploration of the unknown and the creation of peaceful relations with other species, so that Star Trek incarnated their benchmark for the future of humanity.  This utopian standard was maintained all throughout the various incarnations of the show (with one exception – I’ll come back to this in a while) upon the mandate of creator Gene Roddenberry, who stipulated early on that the spacefaring crews, and the societies they originated from, had found a way to settle their conflicts and to live in harmony.

While this directive gave Star Trek its distinctive outlook, one that offered a hope for the future – particularly when the show aired in troubled times – it also represented, in my opinion, a set of shackles that on occasion hampered the writers’ creative range and probably robbed the stories of that pinch of “courage and daring” that would have elevated many of them from the simply good to the outstanding.  One of the many examples of this phenomenon could be observed with Voyager: the mixed crew of Federation officers and Maquis rebels offered a huge potential for cultural and ideological clash, and therefore interesting stories and character studies, but this potential was soon disposed of by having the two halves of the crew merge and combine seamlessly just a few episodes into the first season.

By that same rule, the Federation and its representatives had to be irreproachable, perfect in their selfless pursuit of the common good, so that when Deep Space 9 “dared” to show the flaws in this impossibly perfect exterior (high-ranking officers giving in to their dark side; the shady Section 31, and so on) many fans protested at this dismal turn of the story – a turn that generated, when allowed to run its course, some of the most interesting and compelling narrative threads.  Because, let’s face it, conflict – be it a strife between contrasting personalities or an outright fight between opposing factions – is what can fuel a multi-faceted story whose outcome needs to be unpredictable to hold our continuing interest.

Back to Star Trek: Discovery, it’s my belief – after seeing the first four episodes – that the main point of contention from the viewers who did not like what they saw is exactly this: they might feel “betrayed” by the fact that the Federation finds itself engaged in a war.  I will not linger on other complaints that I consider purely… cosmetic: yes, the Klingons’ appearance has been changed, again, and while I see no reason for that change (I liked their look from TNG onwards, thank you very much), I can take that in stride; yes, the time-frame for the show is set several years before that of the original series, and yet there is ample evidence of more advanced technology, but I believe that trying to compare what we can do with CGI today with what was available 50 years ago (not to mention the improvements in our present technology) is something of a futile exercise: maintaining the continuity with a show that aired so long ago, with so little means at its disposal, would prove counterproductive, in the end.  What I would like to really focus on is the story, and the characters: from my point of view, they are all that truly matters.

The biggest complaint I’ve read about the new series, and its characters in particular, is that they “have no soul”: in my opinion it might be a premature judgment, because we hardly had time to get to know these people, and many of us might be falling prey to the modern bad habit of wanting to be instantly wooed from the very start.  Remember the times when a tv show took at least one season, if not more, to find its footing? TNG took three to really get into gear, mostly thanks to the Borg, and DS9’s true potential started to come out in season 4, when the Dominion raised its ugly head.  Yet viewers, despite some unavoidable complaints, stayed for the duration and in the end came to enjoy and love those shows.   So why are so many of us not ready to give this show a chance?  It might fizzle out into boredom or predictability, I’ll grant you that, but for now we should give it the benefit of the doubt, and time to get used to its… new shoes.

Personally, I’m quite happy to see a good number of strong female figures that are not relegated in the role of caregivers – doctors, counselors, teachers for the kids living on board: the story opens with two women, a captain and her first officer, engaged in a mission on an inhospitable planet.  I liked immediately Captain Georgiou, the mix of experience, wisdom and humor that came to the fore from the very start: she gave the impression of a person who’s quite comfortable in her role and in her own skin, and if a certain scene with the Federation symbol drawn in the sand felt a little over the top, the overall effect was more than positive.  I’m still trying to get a grip on Commander Michael Burnham instead (including the reason she goes by a male name…), but she looks promising: having been raised on Vulcan she is an interesting mix between human passion and Vulcan logic and that could be the main reason she looks so hard to pin down. And again, on board Discovery we meet a woman at the head of the security section: her appearance has been brief, so far, but her air of strong, no-nonsense competence made an impact on me and I hope she will not remain an exception.

As for the story, or what little I saw until this point, it looks darker, far more serious than the usual Star Trek offerings, and that’s mirrored by the dimmer ambient lighting, quite a departure from the bright lights and colors of the various Enterprises or of Voyager.  The Federation finds itself at war with the Klingons, and if some might feel inclined to disagree with this narrative choice, I’d like to remind them that in the times of the original series, relations with the Klingons were quite strained and always on the verge of an all-out conflict: if this turns out to be the story of how that uneasy truce came to be, I will be very interested in following its progress.  This war, one that was not actively sought but still needs to be fought, might very well represent the catalyst (or one of them anyway) for the process that led the Federation to the reasoned adherence to its founding principles as we came to know and appreciate them.  And it might also be the background for the thought-provoking character and narrative arcs I’m looking for: there is a scene in which a crewman asks how it could have happened, how could the Federation find itself waging war when their goals are exploration and learning, and in this dichotomy – a hard, painful dichotomy that hopefully will engage many characters’ moral compass – we might find a multi-layered story worth watching.

All we need to do is indeed give Discovery some time to grow, and to grant ourselves a little patience and faith…

Reviews

Review: AGE OF ASSASSINS, by R.J. Barker (The Wounded Kingdom #1)

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

Age of Assassins is a definite example of what I’ve come to call “book vibes”, that impossible-to-define combination of factors that draws me to a book on the basis of little or no information about it: over the years I’ve learned to listen to this subliminal urging (or its opposite twin that warns me about a book I might not enjoy), because 99 times out of 100 it proves absolutely right.  When I glanced at Age of Assassins’ synopsis I felt that vibe, and after the first chapter I knew it had guided me well once again.

The story’s background is a fascinating one – even more so because it begs for more information about it, something that I hope will be offered in the next installments of this series: the Tired Lands, as the name suggests, are a place where farming and livestock raising are extremely difficult, because the soil has been depleted by the magic wielded by sorcerers during some brutal war.  In this world, the use of magic requires that power be drawn from nature itself, draining it of its life force, so that now most of the places where sorcerers fought for dominance are either barren wastes or covered in yellowish, withered grass: this makes for a brutal, unforgiving land, one where anyone suspected of using magic is killed, their blood spilled on the ground as a form of compensation for what was taken from it.    Breeding livestock is just as difficult as farming, since lack of pastures make the raising of cows quite costly, and people have turned to sheep, goats and mostly pigs – the latter far too often being fed the remains of caught criminals, or unlucky enemies.

Such a ruthless landscape makes for equally ruthless people, divided into three social groups – or rather castes: the Blessed, the aristocracy of the land, those who can wield their power unchecked and do so with cruel indifference; the Living, or the equivalent of a middle class, like shopkeepers and artisans; and the Thankful, who have really very little to be thankful for, eking out a meagre existence under the heel of their “betters” and the watchful eye of the priesthood.  There are however people who don’t belong to a specific caste, moving free and unseen among the populace – they are the Assassins, skilled and highly trained killers for hire, as reviled as they are sought after.

Young Girton Clubfoot is the 15-year old apprentice of master assassin Merela Karn and we meet them as they are infiltrating castle Maniyadoc on the summons of Queen Adran, sneaking in rather than passing through the main door because their kind is not welcome, even when their skills are required.  Soon Girton and Merela learn of their task: finding the assassin, and his employer, whose target is Ardor the queen’s son and soon-to-be king.  An assassin’s skills are such that only one of them can catch another, and Adran needs to resolve this quickly: the old king is dying (not from natural causes, which comes across as hardly surprising) and the queen has a very detailed political scheme hinging on her son’s survival and ascension to the throne.   Girton and his Master will have to blend in with the castle’s population to be effective, so that Merela poses as the court’s Death Jester, and Girton is sent with the other squires in training: day after day, the two assassins discover that there is much more than meets the eye in Maniyadoc, and that conspiracies can be more convoluted than they first thought.  Navigating the court’s intrigues and many dangers will prove quite difficult, and young Girton will need to balance his devotion to his Master with the first signs of adulthood and an unexpected discovery about himself that will turn his world upside down.

Many are the themes explored in Age of Assassins besides the immediate mystery at the core of the story, that acts as a thread binding it all together: there is the coming-of-age premise, of course, that is not limited to Girton alone, but involves all the castle’s squires and embraces other topics as peer pressure, cliques and the universal delight in bullying the weaker that seems to be a constant wherever young males are grouped together. Besides being the newcomer, Girton Clubfoot – as his name indicates – is a cripple, and if this has not factored in at all in his assassin training, nor made him self-conscious about it, he needs to tone down his abilities and look as non-threatening as possible, so that he has to suffer the insults and the rough handling of the other squires, who delight in finding a new target. And no one is as determined as  Ardor, a loutish, cowardly brute who is aware of Girton’s identity and purpose and wastes no opportunity to assert his power, as bullies are wont to do.   

Still, such bleakness is relieved by Girton’s nature, which offers a delightful counterpoint to the story’s dreary background, because for the first time in his sheltered life he’s able to give in to the need for friendship and to savor the first flutters of young love: much as Merela offered him shelter and a way to forge his path through life, she kept him somewhat apart from the rest of the world and Girton had little or no opportunities to be a teenager and to enjoy both the good and the bad that his age entails.  It’s here that we discover how his training has not hardened or soured him: yes, Girton is a very efficient assassin when need be, and we can often see how his Master’s lesson have borne fruit, but at the same time he is an innocent, and still able to look at the world with the kind of wonder that only the young can attain.   The best, most fascinating part of the story is indeed this, witnessing Girton opening for the first time to the real world, and enjoying the new awareness that comes from growing up. This does not mean that the core mystery is less interesting, because it leads to some daring feats and a final showdown that often left me in doubt of the outcome, but all of this plays as a background to the young man’s discoveries – both the good and the bad ones.

As a series opener, Age of Assassins works beautifully in introducing this world and it’s a revelation on many levels, not least because it’s a debut novel: rarely I have found such skill and mastery of the story in a first work, and R.J. Barker is indeed an author I will keep on my radar – especially because I look forward to learning more about Girton’s journey.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Short Story Review: CRYSTAL HOLLOWAY AND THE FORGOTTEN PASSAGE, by Seanan McGuire

 

Every time I start a story by Seanan McGuire I know there are good chances that she will be able to rip my heart to pieces: her shorter works seem to concentrate and distill the feelings she wants to convey into a more powerful, more effective mix, and “Crystal Holloway” is no exception.

CRYSTAL HOLLOWAY AND THE FORGOTTEN PASSAGE

(click on the link to read the story online)

It’s a story about finding secret passages to other worlds, or dimensions, something McGuire has explored more deeply in her recent “Wayward Children” series, but here the place where the protagonist Crystal finds herself is less dark, more conventionally magical: at some point the character mentions C.S. Lewis’ world of Narnia, and the comparison holds, since the land of Otherways is more like a fairyland than a dark mirror of our own primary world.

There are dangers here, granted, and young Crystal has become a sort of super-hero for the land, battling evil creatures like the dire bats we see in the opening of the story, and fighting side by side with humanoid rabbit Chester and the arachnoid Naamen.  She’s been able to move back and forth between worlds, but now that she is reaching her sixteenth year she feels the pull of this magical place, “a strange, beautiful, terrible world, with its talking spiders and its deadly, scheming roses” and she’s considering whether to stay permanently or return to her old life.  That is, until something happens that changes things – and Crystal – forever…

This story delves into the old dilemma between reality and fiction, between the need to believe in magic and the pressures from everyday responsibilities, and it resonates deeply with people, like me, who love being taken elsewhere by the skilled words of a storyteller.  How many times we, lovers of speculative fiction, have been told that we “need to stick to reality”?  How many times our reading choices have been branded as childish and silly?

That’s what this short story wants to show, that no one should have to make that choice, that we should be able to move freely between worlds – the imagined and the real – with the same ease as when we move from one room to another.  That there is no stigma attached to the need for dreams.

Sadly, there seem always to be some Truth Fairies, ready to warn us that “You can’t be part of two worlds forever. The heart doesn’t work like that. There isn’t room, any more than there’s room in a mouth for two sets of teeth. Baby teeth fall out. Childhoods end. That’s how adult teeth, and adult lives, find the space to grow.”

And Truth Fairies can be cruel indeed….

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: MARQUE AND REPRISAL (Vatta’s War #2), by Elizabeth Moon

After the delightful discovery of this series with the first book, Trading in Danger, I did not wait too long to read the second volume in Elizabeth Moon’s Vatta’s War, because my curiosity about the main character’s continuing journey needed to be satisfied.  Sadly, Marque and Reprisal proved to be something of a disappointment, or maybe the victim of excessive expectations, because it did not meet the standards of its predecessor.

In the aftermath of the adventures in book 1, Kylara Vatta does not have time to enjoy her new-found independence and to settle into the role of commercial captain: violent, murderous attacks on all Vatta holdings throughout the galaxy hit Ky’s family’s commercial empire, leaving behind a trail of death and destruction, enhanced by the extended sabotage of the ansible net, the faster-than-light communication system, which leaves isolated planets at the mercy of lack of information and wild rumors.

Ky finds herself cut off from any kind of help and must rely on her wits, her small crew and the help of the few friends she can find, namely the mercenaries she met in the previous novel and her cousin Stella, the family infamous black sheep: surviving the attempts on her life while staying financially afloat, and finding clues about the attacks and the people behind them, will require an even more difficult balancing act, and Kylara will need to grow a thicker hide and quicker wits if she wants to keep herself and what remains of Vatta in one piece.

With this kind of premise and the high stakes of such a situation, there was room for both action and some character exploration, but what I found was far less than I would have liked: for example, Ky’s family suffers brutally from the first wave of attacks on Vatta, but the drama of it is observed in a detached manner – for want of a better definition – lacking the emotional impact that such a tragedy entails.  Granted, on Ky’s home planet of Slotter Key the remaining members of her family find themselves with little time to mourn the losses, because they must concentrate on keeping the business alive and on possibly removing the threat before it’s too late; and Ky herself learns of the attack after some time, due to the ansible sabotage, and therefore the impact of it all is lessened by the time factor, but still I would have liked to see some more evidence of grief and loss, instead of being simply told about their existence.

Stella’s introduction, on the other hand, is an interesting choice because it compares the different attitudes of the family’s two “failures”: Stella had been cut off from Vatta’s affairs after a massive indiscretion, and now – not unlike Kylara – is trying to demonstrate she’s outgrown her youthful silliness.  While Ky works to show her competence has not been impaired by the good-faith mistake that had her thrown out of the Academy, and that she can learn from that mistake and better herself, Stella has learned to use her fiasco as a form of deception, as a mask for the cunning and skills she has honed since then.  The moments in which the two cousins are able to compare notes, and to start understanding each other better, are among the best in the novel.

Unfortunately, the arrival of Stella includes that of Rafe, her former lover, and here the characterization fails a little, at least from my point of view: Rafe is the stereotype of the lovable rascal, the consummate ladies’ man no one seems able to resist; he’s the bad boy with his heart in the right place, the kind of guy every lady knows she should avoid, but is unable to. If you feel like rolling your eyes in exasperation, please do: I will join you gladly.   What’s worse, Rafe is soon revealed as a skilled agent in disguise whose abilities would make the famous Swiss Army knife quite envious: think of an hybrid between James Bond, Montgomery Scott and Dr. Who’s sonic screwdriver, and you will have an idea of his talents.  Over the top does not even start to cover it…

As far as the story itself is concerned, if on one side there are some intriguing observations about people’s reactions in times of stress, on the other there are a few truly appalling conversations that are both infuriating and cringe-worthy, that gave the narrative its distinct unbalanced feeling.  What I enjoyed was the general attitude of planetary governments and private contractors toward Kylara and her crew: once it becomes clear that Vatta is the target of an organization capable of extreme violence, everyone turns their backs on her and her family, as if afraid of being tainted by proximity.  Nothing seems to penetrate this ostrich-like behavior, not even Ky’s quite lucid conclusion that the attacks on Vatta might be only the beginning and that others might find themselves in the same position sooner or later, that strength resides in banding together rather than closing one’s eyes and waiting for the storm to pass. As distasteful as it is from an observer’s point if view, this is also a reaction grounded in reality, and as such it’s an interesting commentary on human nature.

What annoyed me, on the other hand, is the paternalistic attitude that Ky is forced to endure from many sides: in her first voyage as a newly-minted captain it would have been understandable, particularly since an impulsive choice had been the reason for her banishment from the Academy, but now she has a successful – and very difficult – first run under her belt, one where she was able to show her mettle and the ability of thinking on her feet.  And yet, more than once, she is confronted with the wrongly perceived inability to resist the lure of a pretty face, therefore losing any capacity for rational judgment: in particular there is a conversation with the mercenary commander, whose paternalistic attitude had me grinding my teeth in frustration, that made me wonder about the author’s intentions with that scene, because if it wanted to be humorous it failed completely for me.

It’s exactly this dissonance that prevented me from enjoying Marque and Reprisal as I did the first book in the series, the perception that somehow the standards achieved in book 1 had been… diluted.  Still, I don’t want to give up on it, in the hope that the next books will recapture the “magic” that charmed me with Trading in Danger.

 

My Rating: