Reviews

Review: A BOY AND HIS DOG AT THE END OF THE WORLD, by C.A. Fletcher

 

I received this novel from Orbit Books through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to both of them for this opportunity.

Post apocalyptic worlds can come in a wide variety of flavors, most of them having in common the obliteration of the greater part of the human race: either by quirks of nature, pandemics, or climate changes, mankind finds itself vastly reduced in numbers and trying to survive in what is often a ravaged land – or a very unfriendly one.  This novel, however, starts from a different kind of premise, that the dramatically dwindling population is the consequence of a devastating decrease in birth rate, one that results in the progressive, unavoidable emptying of the world, so that vegetation and fauna retake control of a landscape in which humans are more intruders than anything else.

A few enclaves survive, however, either small groups living together for support, or isolated family units: the latter is the case for Griz, the narrator of this story, whose family dwells on an island off the Scottish coast. It’s a harsh life, one made of hard work and constant struggle against the failure of ancient machinery cobbled together ingeniously from the remnants of the old world and made to function without the aid of electricity or propellants, both things having disappeared together with civilization as we know it.

Still, it’s not a bad life, despite its tragedies: Griz’s twin sister Joy died several years before falling from a cliff, and their distraught mother, searching for her child, fell badly and suffered a head injury that left her absent-minded and incapable of fending for herself. Griz’s father, older brother and sister are a tight-knit family unit, occasionally trading with the next-island neighbors, and surviving through sheep farming, some scavenging in the abandoned areas of the mainland (they call it “viking”, from Viking raiders or old) and whatever forms of agriculture the island climate allows.  And of course there are their dogs, Jip and Jess – part of the family and Griz’s best friends and faithful companions.

Things change for the worse when a passing trader elopes with Jess: like humans, dogs have suffered in their reproductive abilities and female dogs have become quite rare in litters, so Brand – that’s the name of the trader – knows he will get a good price for Jess somewhere else.  Incensed for the theft, and the awareness that the whole family has been deceived by Brand’s easy manners and tall tales, Griz jumps on one of the family’s boats and launches in pursuit of the thief, intending to retrieve the stolen dog at any cost.

What follows is of course an adventure in an unfamiliar and dangerous world, but it’s also a coming-of-age tale and a lesson about never losing sight of your humanity, no matter how harsh and unforgiving the situation becomes.   And it’s a story about the bond between humans and dogs, as well, showing us that they are not just intelligent creatures who have stayed at our side since the dawn of time (Of all the animals that travelled the long road through the ages with us, dogs always walked closest), but also the kind of companions we can always rely on, their love and devotion coming straight from the heart and never filtered through self-interest or artifice.

As easy as it is to like Griz as a character, the moments in which this youngster truly shines happen in relation with Jip the dog: they are not merely friends and traveling companions, they look out for each other, care for each other’s well-being and share a bond that goes beyond the need for words, since they seem to understand one another through an unseen connection – not so much a connection of the mind, as one of the heart.  As Griz tells the thief, in a heated exchange about the lack of laws following the fall of civilization: “…but if you steal my dog, you can at least expect me to come after you. If we’re not loyal to the things we love, what’s the point?”. Jip and Jess are family and as such they deserve the same kind of faithfulness and love as the rest of Griz’s parents and siblings – and in those simple words we can find the essence of this story and of Griz’s journey.

A side of this character that will not fail to endear it to us bookworms is the love of stories, the pleasure Griz takes in being drawn into them and letting the mind wander along the “what if…?” path that we all know so well: strangely enough, Griz’s main focus is on post-apocalyptic stories, which to me sounds like a tongue-in-cheek sort of joke and also as a curious parallel, since it’s a sub-genre I’ve always been interested on.  For me, I think it’s a matter of superstition – sort of: as long as I can read about all the ways the world might end, I know it all remains firmly in the realm of fantasy; for Griz it’s a way to understand how the world truly ended: being born in the aftermath of it all means that any information has been filtered through second- and third-hand retellings and there is no certainty that things truly happened that way.  Then there is the pure joy of losing oneself in stories – not just dystopian ones, of course: life on the island, with its definite boundaries and the need for constant hard work, does not leave much room for the mind to wander, and it’s only through books that Griz is able to move across a whole universe of possibilities.

And when the journey begins in earnest, when Griz is alone in the wide world beyond the borders of the tiny island, it’s the knowledge gleaned through books that helps in the difficult business of survival or that makes the sights and wonders more relatable, either thanks to scientific information or – again – to stories read in the past. And so the deep forests of the mainland (something that the islands lack) make Griz remember passages from The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings; or the need to escape from confinement is fueled by recalling The Count of Montecristo, and so on.

Above all, this is a story about love, loyalty and steadfast determination, but it’s also a journey of discovery: of an unknown – and sometimes unknowable – world, but also of oneself and what it means to be human. You will find a wide range of feelings here: fear and delight, joy and terror, anger and compassion – this is the kind of book that will steal your heart, taking you on an emotional rollercoaster driven by a writing that at times becomes almost lyrical despite its deceiving simplicity.  I found much more than I expected here, and I would not have missed it for the world.

My Rating:

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Reviews

Short Story Review: BLACK FRIDAY, by Alex Irvine

 

(click on the LINK to read the story online)

 

Try to imagine the combination of the Black Friday madness in a shopping mall with the Hunger Games and you might get an idea of what this short, brutal story is about.  In a twisted, bloody version of Thanksgiving celebration, family groups engage in battle inside a shopping mall to acquire desired goods and eventually the prizes that have been hidden like Easter eggs in various locations.

The story follows the Anderson family – calling themselves The Mugs – composed by father Caleb and three teenage children, respectively fifteen, fourteen and twelve years old, as they furtively enter the Greenleaf mall armed to the teeth, ready to claim their goals. It becomes immediately clear that this kind of event is followed by television networks all over the country, as drones follow the progress of the groups and newscasters comment with various degrees of excitement as they would for a sports match – with the hideous difference that in this case the match involves the wounding or killing of one’s opponents. That’s where the comparison with the Hunger Games comes to the fore in all its chilling evidence, especially when it illustrates the backing and publicity-seeking of many sponsors…

The competition is ruthless and savage, and the mention of rules to be followed seems more like lip service to a hazy idea of fairness than anything else: these people are there to get what they want and to do so are prepared to roll over the opposition with any means at their disposal, while no one seems interested in forcing adherence to those rules. At some point we learn that

 

The more predatory teams would be hunting for the wounded, aiming to finish them off under the pretext of checking items off their lists. This is known as vulturing.

 

showing that the actual goal is not so much the acquisition of a particular object but rather the vicious joy of destroying other lives: that young people, children, are involved in this, trained from an early age to kill without the slightest qualm, and to do it efficiently, makes this story all the more petrifying, especially at the unexpected turn of events in the end.

This is not an easy read, granted, but I wonder if it might not prove helpful in giving some much-needed context – and a chance for reflection – in the running debate about guns…

 

My Rating:

Reviews

Short Story Review: DEAR SARAH, by Nancy Kress

A Short Story from Year’s Best Science Fiction Thirty-Fifth Annual Collection # 2018

Edited by Gardner Dozois

 

 

Short stories’ collections always offer a mixed bag, at least according to individual tastes, and this eclectic anthology proved to be no exception: there were stories that did not speak to me, others that were nice but did not compel me toward a review, and then there were those that gave me that something extra that made all the difference.  Here is one of them…

This is not my first short story by Nancy Kress, and as before I found myself immediately drawn into the picture she paints here of a very changed Earth after first contact with an alien race.  The theme of the aliens coming to our planet is a very familiar one in science fiction, and it usually goes both ways: either they are here to do something bad to humans (exploit, enslave or eat them, or all three together), or they have come to offer a higher level of civilization and better living conditions.

In Dear Sarah the latter scenario is the one that plays out, but it has not brought positive consequences for the Earth population, even though they brought Q-energy, a form of clean power that has supplanted oil and nuclear plants and even the small quantity of coal still in use, so that jobs were lost, and more were still when the aliens’ robots started being employed in manufacturing.  The greater part of the population – those without money of their own – is suffering from the lack of income and living on scant unemployment pay, the resentment against the aliens mounting day by day, fueled by some terrorist groups that are trying to drive the extra-terrestrials away from Earth.

MaryJo, knowing there is no future for her in the small village where her family lives, decides to enlist in the military, the only alternative to the hand-to-mouth existence led by her relatives: since the army is tasked with the duty of protecting the aliens against terrorist attacks or just plain anger from the man in the street, MaryJo’s family is strongly opposed to her choice, seeing it as a form of betrayal – protecting the creatures responsible for the sad situation of the majority of Earth’s population.  And MaryJo indeed finds herself torn between two sides as she tries desperately not to choose one – that is, until she has to…

Short and very realistic, this is a very thought-provoking story about choices and their consequences, and one that feels more grounded in actual reality than in speculative fiction. Something I’ve come to expect from this author…

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: ONE OF US, by Craig DiLouie

 

I received this novel from Orbit Books through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to both of them for this opportunity.

One of Us is a classic example of a book that should not be judged by its cover, even though I initially was guilty of this very mistake: when looking at this title on the Orbit newsletter, the cover appeared so bland to my eyes that I was not even tempted to read the book’s synopsis. My bad.  Luckily for me, some of my fellow book bloggers possess a more open mind and a keener curiosity, and through their reviews I learned that I was missing out on a very intriguing story, so I rushed to correct my error.

I knew, going in, that I would find myself in the midst of a dark, harsh tale, one that would push several of my buttons, but when all is said and done I don’t regret having read it despite the anguish and rage and frustration that it engendered: this novel is like a mirror into mankind’s soul, and once we look at ourselves through it, what stares back at us is something we should try to grow up from if we want to keep calling ourselves ‘human’.

The story is set in an alternate 1984 (a curiously apt choice at that…): fourteen years before a teratogenic virus spread all over the world causing the birth of mutated babies, and while many did not survive long after birth, a good number of them made it through. Rejected by their families, they were confined in the Homes, virtual prisons where the “monsters” would grow up out of sight and out of mind, while the world community, in a rush of puritanical zeal, implemented a strict regime of screening and control on sexual intercourse, especially where young people were concerned, to avoid further spreading of the plague.

In the rural community of Huntsville, Georgia, one of the Homes lies on the outskirts of town, the kids it holds employed as cheap labor in the surrounding farms, while their scant education is geared toward destroying their sense of worth and implementing blind obedience: the “plague children”, as they are called, are nothing but slaves, living in squalid conditions that would make Dickensian tales pale in comparison, most of their “teachers” little better than the dregs of society, taking on the job for lack of worthier opportunities.   Yet something is changing, because with the onset of puberty many of the Home’s inmates start showing peculiar abilities, like reading or influencing minds, starting fires, flying, and so forth; a few of them are spirited away in secret installations where they are employed by the military or the intelligence services, but the rest of them, on the advice of Brain, try to keep their powers hidden.  Brain is one of the more feral looking children of the Huntsville home, and the one who possesses the keener intellect: the acute awareness he was born with made him understand that one day the showdown between the “normals” and the “monsters” would come, and he wants them to be ready to fight back – for themselves and their right to exist.   Once the conflict does erupt, the fury and resentment that have been long simmering under the surface – on both sides – flare up into a bloody climax fueled by mindless violence and carnage of apocalyptic proportions.

The first question that comes to mind while reading One of Us is the one about the definition of ‘monster’: does being born with a dog’s head and paws, or an upside-down face, or looking like a cross between a lion and a gorilla make you a monster? Or should the label apply to those who confine these hapless creatures into internment camps, literally (and gleefully) torturing them for the slightest deviation from the imposed discipline?  Humanity does not show its best in the sliver of society represented by the Huntsville community, one where the fear and loathing for the plague children comes out of the kind of blind ignorance that is proud of itself, which refuses even to consider an alternative to the illiterate narrow-mindedness that many wear like a badge of honor.

I was deeply distressed while reading about the children’s treatment in the Home, where constant abuse, filthy living conditions and abominable food were everyday occurrences, to the point that when one of them is incarcerated on a false accusation, he considers the jail cell – with its bare-bones cot and waste disposal facility – like an unhoped-for luxury: that simple thought, one that does not even touch upon the fact that the boy is being unjustly held, was both chilling and heartbreaking, moving me to unexpected tears.  That’s why I felt even more profoundly the anger that possessed me once the false premise of wrongdoing by one of the plague children drives the oh-so-good, law-abiding citizens of Huntsville toward a hate-fueled pogrom.   By that point, all concepts of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ fly out of the window, with acts of cruelty (and a few exceptions of mercy) being performed by citizens and children alike.

The reason this story can hit so close to home comes from the realization that humankind can be cruel toward those it perceives as ‘different’, and it becomes even more so when its own well-being is threatened in some way, be it physical or economical: that’s the moment when the need for a scapegoat becomes undeniable, when the compulsion to heap the mounting frustration on the nearest available target reduces our better angels to silence.  The fact that this novel is set in our past – or an alternative version of it – does not make it any less actual, or help us dismiss the story as simple fiction, because we only need to turn to any news channel to see a version of it play out under our eyes.

As I said, One of Us is a dark, brutal read that might not be for everyone, but still I would recommend it, if nothing else because of its ability to make us think, to take a good look at ourselves and wonder if we can do better, or if we want to.  My only complaint with the book comes from the ending that seems to be fizzling out somewhat after the huge, well-crafted buildup: but it’s a minor complaint indeed, considering that this story will remain with me for a long, long time….

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

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

Short Story Review: OF A SWEET SLOW DANCE IN THE WAKE OF TEMPORARY DOGS, by Adam-Troy Castro

From the anthology: SELECTIONS 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.

OF A SWEET SLOW DANCE IN THE WAKE OF TEMPORARY DOGS

 

This is one of the hardest reads I encountered in my journey through short stories, so that even taking into account the fact that it’s part of a dystopian anthology and that some harshness was to be expected, there were moments when the horror became too much to bear. But I guess that was the intention of the author…

Enysbourg is an actual island but also a virtual island of carefree happiness and delight in a world that’s become too set in its way, too dedicated to work, duty and productivity; a gray, dreary world that sucks all joy from people, who come to places like Enysbourg to taste something they sorely miss in their lives.  The island’s dwellers are welcoming, sunny people and it’s so very easy for tourists to be swept away by their hosts’ delight in living and having fun, to the point that some of them choose to abandon their former lives and take residence on Enysbourg, never to return.

Where’s the problem, then, one might ask. Well there is, and it’s a big one: the revelries don’t go on forever, but only for nine days – on the tenth something dreadful happens, war breaks out in the most bloody and vicious declination one might imagine, and the citizens of Enysbourg are savagely brutalized within an inch of their lives, without ever dying no matter how deadly the injuries.  No explanation is given about the sudden shift from idyllic setting to war zone, as no explanation is given, on the morning of the new day when the nine-day cycle begins again, about the return to health and integrity of the former victims.  The description of that one single, terrible day of death and destruction is given through the eyes of Robert, an occasional tourist who decides to stay for the love of a woman he met, and he voices the question any reader of this story would ask: how is it possible to accept even one day of appalling carnage, of lingering pain unrelieved by death, in exchange for nine perfect days of joys unknown to the rest of the world?  And how does one deal with the aftermath of such suffering, even in the midst of pure happiness?

It would not be an easy answer, if there is indeed one. Still, this story made an indelible impression on me, and despite its brutal change of pace it was indeed the most memorable of the whole anthology, worth indeed the effort of looking for this book.

My Rating: