Reviews

Short Story Review: MERIDIAN by Karin Lowachee

 

(click on the link to read the story online)

 

I read a couple of books from Karin Lowachee in the past, and they focused – with lucid starkness – on difficult subjects like pirate raids, kidnapped and abused children and the harsh decisions one must make to survive, so when I started reading this short story, the core concept felt quite familiar.

Young Paris Azarcon, just five years old, is the only surviving member of his family after a raid on their home on Meridia station: grievously wounded, he is rescued by the crew of a commercial ship passing by and adopted into the family, but the ghosts of his past keep resurfacing – especially the memory of his older brother Cairo, the one Paris saw for the last time as he was urging his little brother to run, save himself.   Life on the ship Chateaumargot becomes progressively difficult as Paris channels the formless rage, pain and survivor guilt into violent reactions that force the ship’s captain to… trade him to another vessel, the operation allowed by the records’ flexibility in this area of space.

On the Dragon Empress, under the tutelage of Madame Leung, Paris learns how to become a drug smuggler and builds around himself the hard, though persona of the guy he needs to be if he wants to keep going, the tattoos he applies on his skin a sort of armor against the pain of life. That is, until one day he makes an incredible discovery that turns his world upside down in a major way.

I’m not going to tell you what that discovery is, it’s best if you find out for yourselves. What I can share is that this story quickly became emotionally wrenching and brought me close to tears: my previous encounters with Ms. Lowachee’s writing elicited many emotions, mostly compassion for her abused, tormented characters, but I never felt anything so deeply touching as I did for Paris Azarcon.

Trust me, just read this amazing, heartbreaking story: it’s more than worth your time…

 

My Rating: 

Advertisements
Reviews

Review: THE POPPY WAR (The Poppy War #1), by R.F. Kuang

 

Far-East-based fantasy novels are quite rare, and as such they are worthy of notice for the difference in background from the usual Middle-Age European-ish setting one usually encounters in the genre: that’s why I’m always intrigued when finding this kind of scenery, and my past experiences – with Daniel Abraham’s Long Price Quartet and the more recent Jade City by Fonda Lee – have been quite positive.  I was therefore looking forward to what I would discover in this debut novel, and I was certainly not disappointed, since I found myself engaged by the story even beyond my expectations.  The Poppy War is set in what looks like an alternate version of China in the period between the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, and draws much of its background from the real events of the constant strife between China and Japan in that era, a period I felt compelled to learn more about thanks to this book.

The story starts with what looks like a classic tale of escape from day to day drudgery through the discovery of unexpected talents, but after a while it turns into something quite different.  Young Rin, the protagonist, is a war orphan who’s been turned into a sort of indentured slave to a family of shopkeepers whose main source of income comes from a flourishing opium smuggling operation.   Informed on her fourteenth birthday that she’s been promised in marriage to a rich merchant who could be her grandfather, Rin is desperate to avoid a fate that threatens to be even worse than the actual situation, and gambles everything on the Keju, a test that could grant her access to the prestigious Sinegard military academy.  Scoring the highest marks of her province proves to be only the first, tiny step in a long and hard road: once she gets to Sinegard, Rin finds herself among the sons and daughters of the most influential families of the Empire, her dark skin and peasant origins a blemish no one is inclined to forget or forgive.

Rin’s fierce determination to succeed is fueled by the awareness that this is the only course open to her, the single-minded focus she is able to apply to any challenge is born out of desperation as much as ambition, and it’s because of that unwavering willpower that she gains the attention of the most unusual, most scorned Sinegard teacher, who guides her toward the practice of shamanism – the almost forgotten art of communing with the gods and drawing on their powers – something she has a natural talent for.  As the young woman progresses in her studies, the winds of war between the Nikan Empire and the Mugen Federation, never truly extinguished, flare up once more throwing the two nations into a new, bloody conflict that will put to the test Rin’s newly explored powers and her need for recognition.

It’s with the onset of war that Rin’s journey diverges from its archetypal path of enlightenment through trials and moves instead toward an intriguing character study and an exploration of the meaning of power, of what it can do to the human soul and how it can affect one’s perception of right and wrong.  Rin has been powerless for most of her life, and once she takes her destiny into her own hands she finds it increasingly difficult to separate her need to accomplish the goals she’s set for herself and the need to show the world how good she is, how much she was underestimated. It does not help, either, that straight out of Sinegard she is assigned to the Cike, the empress’ elite corps of assassins, all of them able to access some form of shamanic power and all of them doomed to succumb to madness because of it: once more Rin feels excluded, relegated among the unwanted and the despised.

At some point her not-so-subtle desire for retribution against life’s injustices becomes enmeshed with the equally strong desire for revenge against the horrors perpetrated by the Mugen Federation on her people, creating a dangerous mix fueled by the destructive power she can tap through shamanism.   

Witnessing the bloody massacre of a whole city by the Mugen soldiers finally seems to break something inside her, probably the last thread of the bond tethering Rin to her humanity: the desire for vengeance against the brutality of the enemy turns her into a force for destruction, one that unleashes the tide of power stored within her and turns into a terrible weapon.  If the description of the gleeful brutality visited on the doomed city by the Mugen Federation had me reeling in horror (compounded by the knowledge that it was modeled on the all too real Nanking Massacre perpetrated by Japanese troops), what Rin unleashes when she gives her powers free rein is equally horrific and leaves no sense of justice in its wake, but only the awareness of an unbroken chain of savagery.

Rin is a deeply flawed character, and yet there is something in her that drives you to compassion, even as she becomes a mirror of the monsters she wants to fight: I think it’s because of the tragic quality of her being, of the sense of doom always hanging over her even in the moments of triumph. We are transported right there, seeing events through her eyes in what feels like close up and personal detail, and that form of empathy never stops: as she discovers the truth about herself, her past and origins, and of the path she seems destined for, we come to realize that there might be no redemption at the end of the road, and we feel for her with incredible intensity.

By comparison, the other characters (and there are many intriguing ones in the book) feel somewhat less substantial, less defined: Rin is indeed a flame that burns too hot (and I’m not using the comparison lightly….) throwing the other figures into shadows, blinding us to their finer details.  It’s the only complaint I have about The Poppy War, that I would have liked to know more about them, to see them as something more than props on the scene of her journey.  Still, this was an extremely satisfying read, and in the end I marveled at how much the author seems to have crammed into a relatively small number of pages, and how she managed to touch with a light hand some difficult subjects like racism, social injustice and sheer human brutality: there is a great deal at stake here since, as I’ve read, this is only the first volume in a series, one that created enormous expectations and will require a great deal of skill to live up to them.  And I can hardly wait….

 

My Rating: 

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: 

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: