Reviews

Short Story Review: Selection from BRAVE NEW WORLDS, Edited by John Joseph Adams

Here is another happy find from the Baen Free Library, 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.  Selections from Brave New Worlds is a sampler from a larger collection of short stories, this time with a dystopian theme. Not all of them were concerned with ruin and destruction changing society, as is often the case, but they were all quite intriguing in their very different outlook.

AMARYLLIS, by Carrie Vaughn

As the editor writes in the introduction, a dystopia is not necessarily a synonym for “post-apocalyptic” and it does not necessarily depict a bleak scenario.  This is particularly true for Amaryllis, since here the end-of-the-world-as-we know-it has already happened, and is something that belongs to the past.  Society has adapted to the new living conditions, and found new ways to carry on and move forward – there is no tragedy to deal with, but this does not mean that things are easy…

The titular Amaryllis is one of several fishing boats, tasked with the job of providing fish for the coastal community where the crews live: after the upheavals that changed the world, a new way of life has taken hold, one where checks and balances rule every human action, to avoid upsetting the eco-system and falling into the same mistakes of the past.  For this reason, each fishing boat is assigned a quota that must not be exceeded – “take what you need, and no more”, this is the golden rule that regulates all activities. Including reproduction.

In this new world, families are not necessarily formed through blood ties, but rather built on commonality of interest, and Marie – the owner and skipper of Amaryllys, has built her small family group around it and turned it into a thriving reality despite the big stigma hanging over her, since her mother’s pregnancy was not sanctioned by the community and it caused the disbanding of the family group.  When the latest addition to Marie’s clan, Nina, starts expressing the desire to have a baby, the skipper must face some difficult decisions…

I liked this short story very much, because it manages to convey poignancy without need to delve into tragedy and turmoil. Still the message is a fascinating one: how much control over our lives, our legacy to the future, are we ready to leave in the hands of the law? Even though these laws have been drafted to protect humanity from its past mistakes?   Carrie Vaughn’s reply to the question is a fascinating and delightful one, indeed.

 

My Rating: 

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Short Story Review: TETHERS, by William Ledbetter

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.

TETHERS

Anyone who appreciated the magnificently tense Gravity will find themselves at home in this short story about people working in the depths of space and having to face a dangerous, life-threatening situation: astronauts Hartmann and Sievert are conducting some EVA repairs when Sievert, a swashbuckling loudmouth more interested in personal records than safety protocols, causes a catastrophic accident that could cost them both their lives, and Hartmann must resort to every single bit of training and ingenuity to ensure their survival.

What’s interesting here is that Hartmann comes from farmer stock, and his present situation is interspersed with recollections from the past, especially of his father, a man who had, and still has, a great influence on Hartmann’s way of thinking and on the kind of person he is: even in space, even in the midst of huge technical advancements, being a decent individual does carry its weight, and that consideration becomes quite pivotal once the two astronauts’ circumstances appear quite dire.

Unlike other similar stories about the dangers of living and working in space, this one does not offer a comforting scenario of cooperation and selflessness: on the contrary it adds to the mix the darkest leanings of human nature, and the effects they can have even on the more honorable of characters, so that Tethers becomes a truly breathless reading experience.

My Rating: 

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: 

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

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: OCCUPIED EARTH, edited by G.Phillips & R. Brewer

24612430I received this book from Edelweiss, in exchange for an honest review.

This kind of anthology is usually centered round a core theme that individual authors choose to develop as they wish, while here I found a different interpretation: there is a common background, concerning the invasion of an alien species called Makh-ra, who have conquered Earth and are ruling it and exploiting its resources.  Therefore each author had to work inside a set of pre-established parameters, giving this anthology a very different feel than usual – in other words, this reads more like a novel developed through a change of POV at each new chapter, rather than a collection of disjointed stories, and that gives it a more cohesive feel that I found quite enjoyable.

Another point of interest in these collected stories is that they don’t focus on the actual invasion: that’s already in the past, one generation removed or thereabouts. What the anthology chose to show is the aftermath, the way in which people and customs re-arrange themselves in the face of occupation, the dichotomy in outlook between those who remember life as it was pre-invasion and those, like the younger people, who have known nothing else.  The Earth that comes through these stories is quite a dismal place: the stripping of resources by the Makh-ra has generated shortages (like water, for example, that’s subject to rationing) and supplies are not as plentiful as before; cities present large ruined areas, some as the result of battles during the invasion, others because the changes in economy have decreed the end of once-flourishing activities. The separation between those with power and influence and the rest of the populace has increased, and only individuals who have chosen to collaborate with the new rulers can enjoy a semblance of normal life.

“Semblance” being the operative word here, because the Makh-ra’s rule is far from a benevolent one: the overall flavor of this situation strongly reminded me of the stories of occupied France under the Nazi invasion in WWII, with a curfew in place, strong restrictions on travel and frequent searches of places or people suspected of aiding rebels.  As it happened in that historical period, many have chosen to collaborate with the alien invaders: some for personal gain, some because they have no other choice, with all the possible variations in between the two opposites.  There are a few instances of attempts at integration as well, the case in point being that of the three-part story from the anthology’s editors, that acts as a sort of frame for the others: here a human FBI agent works side-by-side with his Makh-ra colleague, and they manage to reach a sort of mutual understanding through shared work and dangers.

In general, though, the Makh-ra act as conquerors and oppressors, and even though some of them seem willing to adopt a few human traits and preferences, still they maintain an air of arrogance, the inner conviction that conquest is something of a god-given right stemming from superiority in mind, body and customs.  The Makh-ra, however, also represent the weakest feature of this anthology in my opinion, because they are not alien enough: I’m not speaking about their appearance, which is roughly humanoid except for their taller, stronger frame and the dark, light-sensitive eyes.  The lack of alien-ness I perceived comes from the mind-view that seems more like that of a stolid bureaucrat, rather than that of an off-world creature: granted, this allowed for many of the interesting developments portrayed in the stories, but still I could not avoid the comparison with the Star Trek aliens – my main disappointment with the various incarnations of the series – who are nothing more than humans with strange noses or foreheads. In my opinion, to be truly alien a creature requires one to exhibit some outlandish traits, some quality that is so far removed from our own experience that the sheer otherness of it jumps straight at you. Sadly, that was not the case here, though it was not a major problem.

The quality of the stories is generally good – with anthologies it’s a given that some might appeal more than others – and there are two of them that I found truly outstanding: Strange Alliance (by Cliff Allen) concerning a human who has risen through the Makh-ra ranks to a position of prestige, and Traitor (by Adam Lance Garcia) focusing on the woman who aided and abetted the alien invasion, and the consequences on her personal life.  These two were several steps above the others, breathing life and consistency into their characters.

In short, this is a peculiar kind of collection that’s certainly worth exploring and offers a new outlook on a well-known trope.

My Rating: