Reviews

Short Story Review: THE FUTURE IS BLUE, by Catherynne M. Valente

 

CLICK ON THE LINK TO READ THE STORY ONLINE

 

All the reviews I read from my fellow bloggers about Ms. Valente’s novels hinted at a very versatile author, and this short story – the second I’ve read so far – confirms that any of her works might be quite different from the others, and just as fascinating.

The setting of this tale is a post-apocalyptic scenario in which the icecaps melted and the world disappeared under water: what remains of humanity survives in floating islands of garbage, cobbled together in makeshift cities.  Garbagetown is one such island, and the narrating voice is that of a nineteen year old girl, Tetley Abednego – by her own declaration, the most hated person in Garbagetown.

She lives alone, her only friends a deformed bird and an elephant seal cub, and the dwellers of Garbagetown visit her often to hit her, viciously: we don’t know why, at this point, and our angry puzzlement grows as we see that Tetley accepts those beatings matter-of-factly, and replies to those who hurt her with “thanks for my instruction”, because that is what the law requires of her.

Through a few flashbacks we see how Tetley grew up unloved and uncared for, unlike her twin brother Maruchan, how she gained her name through the required journey across the mountains of garbage that form her island – in a rite every child must undergo – and how the arrival of the Brighton Pier, a sort of traveling show, changed her life forever.

It’s a poignant, heart-wrenching story made even more so by Tetley’s quiet acceptance of it all – not through resignation but rather pragmatism – or her description of the flotsam of the previous civilization that is now piled in mounds of endless wonder and speculation.

I loved this story, even though it broke my heart, and I am set – now more than ever – to seek some longer works by this author to explore her amazing skills.

 

My Rating:

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Reviews

Review: CHILDREN OF RUIN (Children of Time #2), by Adrian Tchaikovsky

I received this book from the publisher, through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to both of them for this opportunity.

When I approached this novel’s predecessor, Children of Time, I did so with some apprehension, since I’m mildly arachnophobic and the main characters in that story were indeed spiders: imagine my surprise when Adrian Tchaikovsky’s writing not only made my fear a moot point, but compelled me to root unabashedly for the eight-legged heroes of his saga…

The previous novel ended with a hint that there could be further territory to explore in this universe, whose most fascinating element comes from the fact that uplifted creatures are now the more populous, more advanced species, and mankind is still struggling with the aftermath of its civilization’s end. Children of Ruin starts where book 1 ended, with a mixed group of scientist – arachnids and humans – embarked on a voyage of discovery for new frontiers.

Like book 1, this sequel follows two different timelines: the ‘present’ aboard the ship Voyager with its mixed crew, and the more remote past, where a group of terraformers has to deal with the collapse of human civilization and the realization that they might be all that is left of mankind.  With a storyline that somewhat parallels that of the evolution of new intelligence on Kern’s World, home of the spiders, one of the scientists on the ship Aegean uses Dr. Kern’s uplift virus on his octopus specimens to create a viable race for the water world he’s focusing on, thus creating a new intelligent species.

As eager as I was to learn more about the arachnid-human association and their journey of exploration, together with the marvels of the organic ship they traveled on, Children of Ruin did not work for me as well as the first book in the series did, partly because of what I perceived as a form of pattern repetition, and partly because of pacing problems.  Still, I’d like to start with what I enjoyed in this new story.

The alliance between the survivors of mankind and the uplifted spiders is one that works but still needs to bridge many differences, chiefly where inter-species communication is involved: that was one of the most fascinating elements in this novel, with characters endeavoring to find the best approach – either simply linguistic or more mechanical – to understand each other without the mediation of the Kern personality residing in their computer.  And of course there are still the compelling arachnid social dynamics, where the females assert their dominance while the males struggle to obtain recognition in what I perceived as a pointed commentary worked through an interesting role reversal.

The human terraformers offer another thought-provoking perspective, especially in their reactions after the protracted silence from Mother Earth leads them to a dismal conclusion. They all appear as self-centered individuals, more focused on their scientific goals than on building a cohesive group so far away from home – in other worlds, an echo of Avrana Kern, multiplied by five, which made me think often about the author’s overall negative vision about humanity.

Then there are the octopuses, whose journey toward increased intellect somewhat parallels that of the spiders, but of course with substantial differences due both to their nature and to the liquid environment they live in, which offers fascinating angles in the creation of their society and its evolution, both planet-side and in space. For example, there are two curious details that stuck to my mind: one is that being boneless octopuses don’t suffer from the bone deficiencies that plague spaces after a prolonged permanence in microgravity; and two, for creatures that can move in several directions, there is no concept of ‘up’ or ‘down’ to upset directional perceptions as it happens to humans.

All of the above elements intrigued me of course, together with the addition of a new kind of creature bent on assimilating other forms of life to understand them, which added further pressure on the already tense situation between octopuses and the explorers from Kern’s World. Still, the octopuses’ evolution did not feel as compelling as that of the spiders in the first novel, and there was a great deal of space dedicated to their biological and psychological progress that felt more like a textbook than a work of fiction, lacking the irresistible quality of the evolutionary saga of the arachnids. Where I cared – so surprisingly, given my bias – for the way the spiders evolved in the course of the millennia of their history, I could not feel equally engaged with the octopuses’ journey, and what’s worse I could not feel any connection with the spiders featured in this novel: this perceived remoteness on my part was the main reason I was not invested in this story as I was with the first book.

Much of my reaction could be ascribed to the lack of novelty compared with its predecessor, since I could not erase the feeling of “been there, done that” that plagued me for most of the way, and moreover the overall plot gave off the feeling of being artificially intricate, lacking the beautiful, clear progression I enjoyed with Children of Time, which does not mean I did not enjoy this story but that I feel how a more… streamlined narrative would have worked better for my tastes.

I’m glad I read this, but nonetheless I can’t avoid the consideration that sequels often thread on dangerous ground, and this one might not have always successfully avoided the pitfall of such ground.

 

My Rating:

Reviews

Short Story Review: THE LADY OF SHALOTT, by Carrie Vaughn

 

CLICK ON THE LINK TO READ THE STORY ONLINE

 

Until the very end I thought this short story might be a retelling of the Arthurian myth about the Lady of Shalott, the maiden confined in a solitary tower, weaving an endless tapestry and forbidden to look out of the tower’s lone window, on pain of death.  And at first the tale seems to follow that path, describing in rich, poetic detail, the life of this unnamed woman who creates idyllic scenes of trees, rivers and animals from an inexhaustible supply of silken thread, all without ever having seen the things and creatures she fills her work with.

The young woman has no memory of who she is, or used to be; of what caused her imprisonment and the curse hanging over her head. All she knows is that she must never, ever look outside, and although some curiosity about her situation does surface from time to time, she seems content of her endless weaving and of the days, each one like the one preceding it, spent in solitude.

Yet something is about to change: Lancelot, one of the knights of the Round Table, happens to pass near the tower and wonders about it, this strange building not attached to any castle but simply standing there, at the border of a forest.  And here is the first inkling that things might not be what they look like, because Lancelot’s musings about who and what a knight must be, and do, seem more attuned to those of a simple-minded fool rather than a valiant knight in shining armor.

 

A knight must do good. Make a name for himself by doing good, by going on quests and such. Succoring the weak. Slaying monsters. Or all of them at once, if the opportunity presented itself.

 

Once he learns that there might be a maiden in need of rescue in that lone tower, he sets his mind on freeing her, deaf to the warnings of nearby villagers about the terrible curse hanging over the prisoner. For her part, the young woman, piqued by curiosity about the commotion she hears outside her prison, decides to look out through a mirror – a way to circumvent the curse’s prohibition – and on seeing Lancelot falls in love with him, and for the first time in her life feels the desire to challenge the curse and escape from the confining walls.

Here is where the story veers sharply from the legend and turns into something completely different: I will leave you to discover it on your own…  🙂

 

My Rating:

Reviews

Review: GODSGRAVE (The Nevernight Chronicle #2), by Jay Kristoff

 

This second book in Jay Kristoff’s Nevernight Chronicle was quite damaging to the integrity of my poor, frazzled nerves, not to mention my blood pressure: where Nevernight was a rollercoaster ride, Godsgrave ended up being an emotional tsunami, one that flipped me without mercy between excitement and terror, without a single moment of respite. And I enjoyed every second of it.

Mia Corvere’s path of vengeance against those who destroyed her family takes a new direction here: her harrowing year as an acolyte of the Red Church turned her into an accomplished assassin, and she proved instrumental in foiling the Empire’s attempt to destroy the Church, thereby gaining her place as a Blade, a killer for hire, the first step into her vendetta against cardinal Duomo and consul Scaeva, the main culprits in the obliteration of the Corvere family.  But an unexpected and unforeseeable revelation forces Mia to turn rogue and seek a different track, one that will entail a daring, difficult plan and many brutal, bloody sacrifices.

The first part of the novel follows two converging time tracks: the present, where Mia is now committed to her plan, and the recent past, where we see how and why she got there. It’s a fascinating interweaving of timelines and it shows to perfection how this new, even harder and more determined Mia came into being, once she realizes that the Empire is based on far more convoluted and insidious lies than she imagined, and that she should trust nothing and no one.

The opportunity to get close enough to Duomo and Scaeva so that she can kill them comes through the Venatus Magni, ferocious gladiatorial games that take place in the days of the convergence of the three suns: the champion of the games is crowned personally by the two co-rulers of the Empire, allowing the winner to get in close proximity to them, without guards or protection.  There is a little catch to the scenario, however: gladiatii, or the gladiators who fight in the arena, are all slaves, sold and bought from all over the Empire for that very same purpose, and trained in schools supported by wealthy citizens who compete ferociously for the best fighters and the most skilled teams.

So Mia arranges to be sold into slavery (and I will leave to you to discover the hazardous, bloody way she manages that) and be bought by the main gladiatorial school of the Empire, certain that she will rise in the ranks and be chosen to fight in the Magni. Things don’t go completely according to plan, however, and our young assassin finds herself acquired by a rival school, one ruled by the estranged daughter of Mia’s prospective patron, which poses a number of obstacles in her carefully constructed plot, not the least of which being that Domina Leona, her new mistress, occupies what used to be the summer resort of the Corvere, Crow’s Nest, a place whose memories still cut deep into Mia’s soul.

Much as the journey that takes Mia to Crow’s Nest and the arena is a fascinating one, the true heart of the story resides in the training she undergoes – a harsh, brutal, bloody affair against which the trials in the Red Church look like children’s play – and in the changes in her attitude and psychological makeup: Mia’s character is mostly founded on her single-minded drive to accomplish the goal she set herself, the willingness to push aside any other consideration so she can attain that goal, but here she seems to lose some of that hardness, showing a few chinks in the armor she wrought around her soul from the moment she was all alone in the world.  In the past, no matter the grimness of the situation she found herself in, Mia could still find strength in the awareness of who she was, or used to be – the daughter of an influential family. Now she is a slave, the chattel of an owner who can dispose of her life as she wants, requiring that she fight and bleed – and die, if necessary – for the prestige of her Domina and for the enjoyment of the crowds.  And for the first time in her life she is able to see how the “other half” lives, and how injustice in the Empire is not limited to political maneuvering and assassinations in the upper echelons of society.

And where in the Red Church the other acolytes were rivals to outshine in accomplishments to gain the favor of the teachers, here among the gladiatii Mia learns the power of loyalty, the bond that comes through shared hardships and dangers: no matter how much she repeats to herself that they are not her friends, that they are all means to an end, she starts to see them as persons, and to care about them – definitely a weakness, from a certain point of view, but also a shift in perspective from the definition of what Mia could do, which was the focus of Book 1, to the definition of who Mia is, which is the focus of Godsgrave, the part of her journey where she learns she has indeed a conscience, or starts to unearth the one she suppressed long ago.

Of course, part of the discoveries we make in this novel, one that is packed with twists and turns and unpredictable paradigm shifts, is to find out if this new side of Mia’s character is only a momentary lapse or a new direction: one of the things I learned from this book and its predecessor is that I can never, ever take anything for granted, and that Jay Kristoff simply loves to pull the rug from under his readers’ feet.

The characters are of course a big part of the appeal of this book – not only Mia, but old and new faces whose acquaintance we either renew, as is the case of Mercurio or Ashlinn, or we make for the first time, like Mia’s fellow gladiators: the latter especially offer a wide range of personalities, from the boisterous Sidonius (one of my favorites), to the twins Bryn and Byern; from the servant girl Maggot to the house’s champion Furian, whose tendency to holier-than-thou whining did nothing to endear him to me, but still offered some interesting contrast with the other slaves.  However, the story is just as important as the people who move through it, and in this respect Godsgrave is a very compulsive read, even more than Nevernight was, and if Mia’s prowess with blades and her seeming invulnerability require some suspension of disbelief, the author presents them in such a way that it’s not an effort at all.  Moreover, Kristoff’s choice to move from the confines of the assassins’ school in the Red Church to the completely different venue of gladiatorial games is a winning one, since it shifts what was a somewhat limited focus to a wider slice of Itreyan society.

In my review of Nevernight I compared this world to a mix between the Roman Empire and the Venice Republic, while here the former is emphasized not only through the spotlight it throws on gladiatorial games, but because names, customs and situations look as if they were taken straight from the history of ancient Rome. And just like their historical inspiration, the Venatus Magni are a mixture of bloody games and the application of summary justice, wrapped in a packaging of spectator sports that sheds a pitiless light on mob mentality and the ruthlessness of crowds, whose base desires are channeled and tamed through witnessing the carnage of the arena. Panem et circenses, indeed…

If I were to find any fault in this second installment of the Nevernight Chronicle it’s because it ended too soon and with a cruel cliffhanger that felt terribly unfair, because – ‘byss and blood! – I was having such fun with it…

My Rating:

Reviews

Short Story Review: PAINLESS, by Rich Larson

 

Click on the LINK to read the story online

 

This is not my first short story by Rich Larson, but so far it is the best, most engrossing and poignant I have come across, one I will not so easily forget.

Mars is a soldier, or rather a special operative for difficult missions, the kind that involve great danger and high chances of grievous wounds or death – but all that does not matter to Mars, because he was born without the ability to feel pain, and later he was experimented on and made invulnerable.

Try and imagine what it would mean to be changed so profoundly that everyone stops seeing you as human, and then being sent out into the world to kill, sometimes taking out bad people, sometimes… well, not.  After a while, even a detached personality like Mars’, who seems unable to feel anything at all – love, hate, friendship, camaraderie – must succumb to the need to seek oblivion. And that’s the point in his journey when we meet him at the start of the story, when he places himself in front of a truck that will smash him to pieces…

A few flashbacks show how he came to that point, what he was before and what was done to him: the remoteness of the delivery does nothing to keep the reader from feeling profound horror and compassion, to feel for this character in the way he’s unable to feel for himself.  Yet there is a glimmer of hope in the end, and it makes all the shock and pain we are forced to endure worthwhile.

 

My Rating:

Reviews

Short Story Review: ANY WAY THE WIND BLOWS, by Seanan McGuire

 

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Would you be surprised if I told you that visiting the ‘fiction’ section of the Tor.com site and seeing Seanan McGuire’s name caused me to stop there and then to read this story?  No, I know you won’t… 😀   And as usual I found an intriguing, immersive tale whose only drawback was that it ended too soon.

The premise is a well-known one, the existence of parallel universes, but the story itself is a journey where witty remarks and horrifying glimpses coexist in perfect balance: the crew of the airship Her Majesty’s Stalwart Trumpet of Glory (or Stubby for brevity, one of the ships of the Cartography Corps) travels through these alternate realities to chart them while looking for artifacts to bring home.  This particular crew has been assigned to the North American area, and as the story starts they are approaching this world’s version of New York, relieved to find a recognizable landmark in the famous Flatiron Building.

Captain Isabel Langford, the Stubby’s captain, lost all her sense of wonder for what awaits her and her crew in each new reality: having seen it all, she seems to have grown jaded by it and she more than looks forward to the time when she will be able to enjoy a more stable life. Not that the overall tone of the story is one of gloom, of course, because there is instead a definite veneer of sarcasm running through it, from the description of the ragtag crew and their rambunctious ways, to the glimpses of past encounters in other realities – like the one where the inhabitants of New York had to take shelter in the subway tunnels because the pigeons had turned “carnivorous and bloodthirsty”.

What awaits Langford and crew in this version of New York will be a surprise, indeed, and one that seems to give these explorers a newfound perspective in their work.   

I enjoyed Any Way The Wind Blows, but I would have loved to see this premise expanded into a longer work: there is a great deal of potential in this story and in the small glimpses we are offered here and I hope that Seanan McGuire might decide one day to turn this into a full-fledged novel.

My Rating:

Reviews

Short Story Review: LIFE SENTENCE, by Matthew Baker

 

CLICK ON THE LINK TO READ THE STORY ONLINE

 

A truly fascinating read from an equally fascinating premise: in this possible future – or alternate present – criminals are not sent to prison anymore, since their minds are wiped of memories for a number of years proportionate with the crime.  Washington’s (the main character) memory has been wiped clean though, since he was sentenced for life: as the story begins, a police cruiser is taking him to the home and family he does not remember having, and he starts his new life in the company of strangers – people he does not know and who don’t know him either, since he’s now a totally different person than the one who was arrested and sentenced.

The story is narrated through flashing glimpses of Washington’s new life, which is interesting because that’s how it appears to him, unrelated flashes that have no background to rest on, no connective tissue to put them together into a cohesive whole: as the man starts to build a new life for himself, the curiosity about the person he used to be grows, and he feels the increasing pull of his forgotten past battling with the equal and contrary pull of the new ties he’s creating with his family – mostly because his wife and kids seem both surprised and wary of this new individual, and Washington gets the definite impression his former self was a very unpleasant one, to say the least.

Once it becomes impossible to live being constantly “torn between the possibility of having a future and the possibility of having a past”, Washington looks for information about himself online…

The mind-wipe of criminals is not a new concept in SF, but it’s still one that can fuel an intriguing debate (just as we discussed in the comments to a recent post by Bookstoge): is erasing an offender’s mind and memories punishment enough for the crime committed? And what about the victims’, or their families’, understandable desire for retribution?  These are the kind of questions that cannot get a definite answer, and that’s what makes them so compelling – and actual.

 

My Rating: