Reviews

Short Story Review: THE LAVENDER PALADIN, by Shawn Snider

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.

THE LAVENDER PALADIN

This was a quite unusual story, on many levels: it might be labeled as Fantasy since it depicts knights in armor and their attendants, but at the same time those knights are considered gods and addressed as “deus” by those same companions; and each of them travels with a bird-sized dragon, whose venomous bite can confer a wide range of powers.  Yet there is not indication about the origin of these ‘gods’, so that for all we know they might as well be human-looking aliens coming from a far-off world; what is certain is that they seem to be at odds with each other – at least the two portrayed in this story are, to the point that one of them is pursuing the other and not stopping at anything to capture his enemy.

The most unusual detail of The Lavender Paladin, though, is the setting: while the story follows many of the traditional guidelines of a fantasy tale, the background, the names and description of the characters and the general feel of the narrative point to an African-like context, which makes for a very different flavor – and a very welcome difference, at that, since it’s something you rarely find in this genre.

Young Nia, the main point of view of the story, is quite taken with the unexpected guests in her mother’s house, the blind god Astonaris and his paladin Kwambo, the latter wearing the titular lavender armor: the two are enjoying a moment of respite in their flight from Saegon, another god and Astonaris’ enemy, and little do they know about the consequences this visit will have on Nia’s little family.  Once they learn about them, the two men will have to decide whether to survive or do the right thing, knowing that each choice will require a price…

I was quite taken by this story, not least because I would love to learn more about this world and how it came to be: this is indeed one of those instances where a novel-sized narrative would be very welcome…

 

My Rating: 

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Reviews

Review: THE UNDERWATER BALLROOM SOCIETY, edited by Stephanie Burgis & Tiffany Trent

When Stephanie Burgis contacted me to propose I read and review this collection of short stories from various authors, I was quite intrigued: I had enjoyed both her two historical fantasy novels (Masks and Shadows and Congress of Secrets) and her novella Snowspelled, with its alternate version of Regency England where magic is as common as teapots, so that I was fairly certain I would appreciate these short works centered on the shared theme of an underwater ballroom.

The location itself would have been enticement enough as a narrative lynchpin, but once I learned from the preface that an underwater ballroom does indeed exist as the remnant of a once-lavish estate, my curiosity did skyrocket: I have by now learned that Ms. Burgis loves to employ true historical details as her writing’s cornerstones, and the fact that she proposed the same core theme to other writers, to do as they pleased within their stories, made for a potentially fascinating journey.  And that’s what this collection was, indeed.

Each story is wildly different, ranging from steampunk fantasy to what I labelled as “fairy stories for grown-ups”, but each of them features the famous underwater ballroom in one way or another, and the overall effect is a delightful one. Now, if it were only remotely possible to experience at least one of these amazing ballrooms, that would be nothing short of perfect…

In “The Queen of Life” by Ysabeau S. Wilce, we see the unusual juxtaposition of the fae  world with our own reality, exploring the concepts of music and immortality, and of the meaninglessness of a long life devoid of the rich pleasures we can only find in the mortal sphere.

“Twelve Sisters” by Y. S. Lee is what made me think of the definition of ‘fairy stories for adults’: in fairy tales, once the hero does the deed and wins the princess’ hand, the focus fades into the usual ‘happy ever after’, while here we see how that same ever after could be anything but happy, and the hero… well, anything but heroic.  It’s one of the more poignant offerings of the anthology, and the one that was able to better blend fantasy with some modern harsh reality.

“Penhallow Amidst Passing Things” by Iona Datt Sharma is a story about smugglers and law enforcers in a very peculiar 18th century setting, one where both roles are given to quite fascinating female characters. Seriously, I would not mind a full novel describing this kind of world in deeper detail…

“Mermaids, Singing” by Tiffany Trent is the story from Ms. Burgis’ co-editor, a dark fairy tale in which a mistreated hound, forced to perform in a cruel circus, discovers the truth about its true nature and that of its fellow prisoners, while at the same time offering a look into 19th century London and an aspect of its life that comes from history: clearly Ms. Trent shares her co-editor’s penchant for inserting real-life details into stories, which affords some more depth to the tale.

“A Brand New Thing” by Jenny Moss will no doubt appeal to all book lovers, since it focuses on a young woman from the early years of the 20th century, who prefers to lose herself in the stories she reads rather than facing a somewhat dreary reality.  Still, fiction can be satisfying only to a certain extent…

“Four Revelations from the Rusalka’s Ball”, by Cassandra Khaw is probably the weirdest, darkest offering of the whole collection, one I’m somewhat still trying to recover from, and wrap my mind around. Which means it was quite effective.

“Spellswept” by Stephanie Burgis takes us back to the author’s alternate England – or rather Angland – a country where men wield magic and women dictate politics, a wonderful topsy-turvy look into a staid society where gender roles are reversed in so many delightful ways.  If you wondered, while reading Snowspelled, about the tantalizing hints given about Jonathan Harwood and his wife Amy, here you will find all the answers you wanted, besides getting a glimpse into main character Cassandra and her beginnings as a magic-wielding female, the true scandal of the times.

Laura Ann Gilman is an author that’s been long on my radar, so I welcomed the opportunity to sample her writing in this anthology: her “The River Always Wins” is a bizarre, intriguing story about the strange friendship between a Siren and an Erinyes, or Fury, and of a night spent in their old haunt of a peculiar nightclub, where old, buried memories will surface again with dramatic intensity.

“The Amethyst Deceiver” by Shveta Thakrar is probably one of the strangest stories I remember reading, and I’m still trying to come to terms with her concept of… well… mushroom people.  Weirdness can indeed take so many shapes where creativity is involved!

And last but not least, “A Spy in the Deep” by Patrick Samphire takes us to a steampunk version of Mars, colonized by the British Empire and rife with dastardly plots and untold secrets.  The flavor of this story reminded me somehow of Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate, but with a more serious bent to it and a charming heroine I would like to encounter again in other stories – or a full-fledged novel.

Short stories can be tricky creatures, and I know several of my fellow bloggers are quite wary of them because they don’t always offer the same involvement as a book, but the fact that these particular stories strive to cater to our sense of wonder, to our desire for the magical, the uncanny, the bizarre, makes them perfect even for the most contrary of book lovers.  Try them out and take a spin in the underwater ballroom, you never know what might be waiting for you there…

 

My Rating: 

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: 

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!