Reviews

Short Story Review: THE JAWS THAT BITE, THE CLAWS THAT CATCH, by Seanan McGuire

 

It’s no secret that seeing the name of Seanan McGuire (or that of alter ego Mira Grant, for that matter) engenders a sort of Pavlovian reaction in me, so that reading her works becomes a compulsive need.  When I saw that she was one of the contributors to LightSpeed Magazine I wasted no time in clicking the link to this story, another example – as if I needed it! – of this writer’s wide range of storytelling that knows no bounds.

THE JAWS THAT BITE, THE CLAWS THAT CATCH

(click on the title to read the story online)

In this instance she retraces a well-known literary background, with the unnamed main character leaving the safety of the woods that are her home to embark on a quest to save her captive sister.  It took me a while to understand the exact context here, probably because I’m not all that familiar with it (it’s been a while since I read that book), but little by little the clues piled up and helped me see where McGuire was headed: once there, it became a fun ride – that is, as fun as this author’s delightfully evil mind can provide, of course.

Describing the character’s journey would give away too much, and this is a story that must be experienced as it unfolds, so I will concentrate on some of the images that caught my attention, like the description of the mist in her home woods, a mist that’s dangerous and deadly: “the mist threw up a tendril, trying to grab the bird’s leg and drag it down”.  Once a hapless creature is trapped in it, it becomes easy prey for scavengers that are not affected by the mist itself: as an introduction to a cruel, dangerous world this brief sentence works quite effectively to set the overall tone of the story.

Opposite this mysterious woods stands a city, the place where the protagonist’s sister had been taken, and there’s an interesting contrast here, because we learn that the city dwellers look on the inhabitants of the woods as monsters, therefore as less worthy of consideration – and survival. The bitter musings of the character say a great deal about this state of affairs as she considers that “monsters didn’t have homes to defend or sisters they loved more than life itself. That would make us too much like them, and then we would be less effective as excuses for the things they did to themselves”.

If you never read anything by Seanan McGuire, I urge you to try this story: it will give you a good insight on her style and writing “voice”, and I’m certain it will be an intriguing journey.

 

My Rating: 

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Reviews

Review: FIRST WATCH (The Fifth Ward #1), by Dale Lucas

I received this novel from Orbit Books, in exchange for an honest review.

The theme of the more seasoned cop being teamed with a rookie he can’t initially stand is one of the main staples of detective literature, movies and tv series, but no one had so far tried to translate it into a fantasy background, and First Watch is probably the first example of this mashup, one that works well exactly thanks to its unusual setting.

Rem is a young man of noble origins who was feeling constrained by his pampered life, and therefore decided to seek adventure out in the big, unknown world: he ends up in Yenara, a colorful city rich with possibilities – and dangers.  Finding himself almost destitute, and incapable of landing any kind of work, Rem wakes up in the city’s jail after a drunken brawl: a series of bizarre circumstances leads him to his enrollment in the Wardwatch – the local version of a police force – and teamed up with veteran Torval, a grizzled dwarf Warden whose partner was recently murdered in mysterious circumstances.

Yenara is a bustling city filled with many kinds of creatures, as humans of various races, orcs, dwarves and elves coexist more or less peacefully in its streets where crime and honest business rub elbows, and despite his privileged education Rem is poorly equipped to hold his own, as testified by his imprisonment.  Even though he’s still guilty of a measure of naiveté, he’s also quick on his feet and this helps him gain some points with Torval, whose irritable demeanor hides a good, honest soul, and a person ready to grant his new partner some slack.

The two start their association by investigating the murder of Torval’s former mate, and in so doing they gather some unexpected clues concerning a series of disappearances and killings that might be related: it’s quite amusing to observe how bureaucracy and territorial politics are a constant, no matter the time period or the place.  As we are used to seeing in modern police procedurals, there are rules and limitations that hinder an investigation and sometimes force an officer of the law to go against them, ruffling a few feathers, in order to see justice done, and in this First Watch is no exception.

As the two unlikely partners move across the city in search of answers we learn much about Yenara, which appears like a crucible of races and customs that come together in a sort of free zone where everything is possible, everything is allowed (if you hold the right license…), making the inevitable parallel with modern New York – the city that more than any other one is the perfect place for a police story – quite clear.    The pace is fast and the story moves along between brawls and fights to the death, with a few sidelines of attempted murder on the two partners, rolling nicely toward the final showdown, one that however promises more adventures for the two unlikely – but by now well adjusted – partners.

If I enjoyed this story, and found myself often smiling at Rem’s and Torval’s antics, still I could not avoid finding a few details that spoiled the overall flavor of the novel.  My main point of contention is with the descriptions: the author is quite fond of adjectives, indeed, never employing just one where two – and sometimes three – can be crammed in to sketch any given person or object.  So you are not simply told that someone looks despondent, but rather that he sports a sad, mournful, desolate face; or a shady character might look hostile, aggressive and pugnacious, instead of simply truculent (the examples are mine, not directly drawn from the text, but can give a good idea of what I found).   Such… richness of detail is not necessarily a bad thing, but when it’s constantly repeated with every instance in which a description is required, it becomes distracting and ultimately slows the narrative flow down.

Something similar happens every time Rem sees someone, or witnesses an event, because in his mind he sort of makes up a back story for the action being shown, with no clues whatsoever about where it all came from: if he sees someone hurrying along with a worried face (again, the example is mine), he thinks it might be a clerk who has forgotten to run an important errand for his master, and is afraid of the consequences.  Since none of these flights of fancy are useful to the economy of the story, are not substantiated by the narrative, nor are they of any interest to the readers since they concern the story’s… extras, they are more distractions than background features, and the sheer repetition proves more bothersome than helpful.

And last, the final revelation – while interesting and bolstered by a quite epic battle between the Wardens and their quarry – is offered through lengthy explanations by the bad guy in chief, a method I always found mildly annoying, not unlike the main staple of many B-movies where the Evil Mastermind illustrates his Dastardly Plans to the captive hero before killing him – which never happens because the hero always  manages to even the odds.   Finding this narrative device here damped a little my enjoyment of the story and somehow ended it on a less than enthusiastic note.

Nevertheless, these are all personal considerations and should be taken as such: on the whole, First Watch is an entertaining read whose best feature is the relationship between two polar opposites, whose differences give origin to an engaging story that will put a smile on your face. And sometimes this is more than enough…

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: DOWN AMONG THE STICKS AND BONES (Wayward Children #2), by Seanan McGuire

If Every Heart a Doorway was a great revelation – not so much of Seanan McGuire’s writing skills, since for me they are a given, but rather of her amazing range in storytelling – this new installment in her Wayward Children series subverted, again, my expectations.

I might have looked for more detail on Ms. Eleanor West’s home and its pupils, or on the stories of their long road to recovery after coming back to our primary world, but what I found instead was a sort of of… upside-down tale, if you want, one where the “before” has just as much impact on the characters as the time in the world beyond the doorway, or the difficult adaptation once the protagonist find themselves back in their place of origin.

This is mainly a story about abused childhood, not in the sense of physical or mental torture, but – worse still – about the way in which parental expectations can mold children, bending them in shapes and directions contrary to their true nature and leanings.  That such shaping can be carried out in the name of the kids’ own good, therefore hiding (or giving an alibi to) the parents’ selfish desires, makes this story all the more poignant in its subtly understated cruelty.

Chester and Serena are not parent material by a long shot: wrapped in their individual worlds – work, career and social standing – that sometimes overlap giving a sort of meaning to their marriage, they at some point decide that to complete the perfect picture presented to they world they need a child. Serena wants the perfect girl, one to be dressed and pampered like a favorite doll; Chester wants a boy, one with whom he can share sports and manly pursuits. They are however gifted with twin girls, Jacqueline and Jillian, so promptly proceed to shape them into the mold each one desires, in an ultimate show of unconscious defiance against fate: Jacqueline ends up being the doll, frozen into her perfect dresses that must not be mussed or dirtied, while Jillian is driven toward sports and a more carefree, boyish attitude.  This creates a rift between the sisters, one that effects their actual separation once they stumble into the magical world accessed through their grandmother’s trunk in the attic, and this rift will have terrible consequences…

While I was reading Jacqueline and Jillian’s formative journey, I was struck by what came across as barely repressed anger and contempt toward these selfishly distant parents, wondering more than once whether the author was drawing her models from some real life example she witnessed firsthand: my experience with her writing has helped me learn that McGuire never “preaches” to her audience, letting the story speak for itself (something I greatly appreciate), and this is the case here as well, but still the depth and intensity of feelings – that quickly took hold of my own reactions as well – goes quite beyond the usual scale, hinting at something more profound and with higher emotional impact.

Like bonsai being trained into shape by an assiduous gardener, they were growing into the geometry of their parents’ desires, and it was pushing them further and further away from one another. One day, perhaps, one of them would reach across the gulf and find that there was no one there.

The “monsters” the two sisters encounter once in the Moors, beyond the doorway, are indeed scary – the Master much more than Dr. Bleak, and that’s all I’m going to say, because they must be discovered on their own – and require the two girls to change and adapt to survive in the weirdly frightening environment, but at the same time they give Jacqueline and Jillian the freedom to choose what they want to be, to take steps in the direction they want to go.  You could say that both the Master and Dr. Bleak love their wards, and care for them – even in the twisted way that’s the norm in the Moors – just as their real parents don’t: Chester and Serena’s great sin is to be incapable of love, and – as McGuire tells us in what sounds like an open accusation – to have taken that ability from their daughters.

“It must be awful to have such a dorky sister,” said the girls in their class to Jacqueline, who felt like she should defend her sister, but didn’t know how. Her parents had never given her the tools for loyalty, for sticking up or standing up […]

This is a story that insinuates in your mind and soul and leaves deep traces (or should I call them ‘scars’?), whether Jack and Jill’s plight has a personal resonance for you or more simply draws you in because of its compelling development.  At times, it broke my heart, but I would not have missed it for anything in the world: no one can pull you into their worlds like Seanan McGuire, indeed.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Short Story Review: LADY ANTHEIA’S GUIDE TO HORTICULTURAL WARFARE, by Seanan McGuire

 

LADY ANTHEIA’S GUIDE TO HORTICULTURAL WARFARE

(click on the link to read the story on Lightspeed Magazine)

 

Think about “The Day of the Triffids” blended with “The War of the Worlds” and “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” on a steampunk background: this is what this story made me think about, even though there is much, much more to it.  These concepts, handled by the deliciously evil writing skills of Seanan McGuire, have created the tale of an invasion that is also a commentary on human flaws, poking fun at our ingrained short-sightedness.

Told in the style of a 19th Century memoir from a lady of high breeding, it recounts the invasion and conquest of Earth by an alien race of… vegetables, and if the premise makes you smile, think again, because if the tone of the account is deceptively gracious and civilized, the reality it depicts comes across as efficiently brutal, and it chilled me to the bone.

The first wave of the invasion by what will be later termed “The Vegetable Empire” starts with the arrival of seeds all over the world: the only one who manages to thrive lands in 19th Century England in the garden of Sir Arthur Blackwood, the royal botanist – and promptly proceeds to eat Sir Arthur’s sister’s maid, taking on her appearance and memories.  Far from being appalled by what happened, the Blackwoods take the seedling into their circle, as a novelty and a subject of polite study, even bestowing on her the name of Lady Antheia, from the goddess of flowers. As Antheia later writes in her memoirs, “better had my first encounter with humanity been a man, and not a woman of low station with no family to mourn her. Better for who, I cannot say”.  The lack of a shocked reaction to Antheia’s method of interaction with humans is commentary enough on the period’s regard for household help and of their short-sightedness about the creature they have welcomed into their midst with little or no thought for her true, blood-thirsty nature: after all, Antheia comments, all they see is “the very flower of English womanhood, with my curves trained to the corset’s embrace and my skirts hanging full and demure down past my ankles”.  She looks like a woman, therefore she can offer no threat, can she?

When six years later the bulk of the invading army arrives, England and the rest of Earth are unprepared for the assault, not understanding how their perceived superiority in culture, breeding and arms (that include airships and ray guns and so forth) seems to melt in the face of a veritable shower of seeds that cover the ground and start sprouting invaders, with appalling results.  As a shocked Sir Arthur is forced to accompany Antheia to the Queen to negotiate a surrender, he struggles to wrap his mind around the incursion, and Antheia’s reply forces him to consider what the British Empire has done until that very moment, taking resources they wanted and needed: “that’s the first reason you did what you did, and that’s the first reason we do what we do”.

As always, Seanan McGuire’s writing skills make this story shine in a delightful way, not in spite but because of the main character’s personality: even if your are not a reader partial to shorter works, I would recommend reading this one for the amazing experience that it is.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: THE RED HOURGLASS (Slaves of the New World #1), by Ashley Capes

I received this book from the author, in exchange for an honest review.

I’ve often reviewed the works of Australian author Ashley Capes, whose writing range goes from fantasy to magical mystery to (albeit mild) horror: this time he’s tackling another genre, steampunk – but with a touch of magic thrown into the mix.

The siblings Mia and Thomas are running from pursuers across a desert landscape: they just buried their deceased old protector and guide David, and their prospects look quite bleak, since over the horizon a dust cloud signals the approach of the hunters looking for them.  Mia and Thomas are escaped slaves, the condition indicated by the hourglass tattoo on their arms: in this future or alternate history, slavery has returned – at least in Australia, so that the country has been isolated from the rest of the world because of this – and the siblings were the property of self-proclaimed King Williams, who wants them back because of their special gifts.

The clues in the narrative point to a classic steampunk background: steam-powered vehicles, the mention of airships (although this particular technology seems to have been lost by the ruling dynasty) and so on, and yet there are a few tantalizing mentions of a more advanced past, one that has now become more legend than actual memory. On top of that, however, there is magic: Mia shows a sort of precognitive ability, paired with her almost total blindness, and the knack of summoning a powerful creature with destructive powers; while later on Thomas discovers an affinity for steel, which he can bend or break with the sole strength of his muscles.

The world in which they move is an intriguing one: even though it’s not immediately mentioned, we soon understand the action is based in Australia – if the author’s origins were not an obvious clue, there is at one point a mention of an iron fountain shaped like a kangaroo to make this clear. The country appears different from the one we all know, the desert encroaching on the fewer livable spaces, red dust creeping forward like a tide that covers abandoned cities and chokes everything and everyone.  It’s not clear what happened, but at some point major environmental and political upheavals must have combined to create the present situation, one that nobody in power seems to care about.

As the two siblings run for their life and freedom, while searching for answers about the past they seem not to remember – including the bewildering changes worked on them by the mysterious Alchemist, something they have no memory of, as well – we get to know this cruel, harsh world and its few islands of respite, like the colony established by former slaves on the shores of the ocean, or the rebel camp where a handful of fighters tries to subvert the rule of King Williams’ dynasty, or the freemen of the mangrove village no one seems to know about.    I have to admit that these proved something of a frustration to me, because they were more like fleeting glimpses rather than deeper explorations of these enclaves, where I might have learned more about the past and the events that brought on the current situation.  The same happens with King Williams’ capital city, a place of hard labor in the smoke-belching factories and of fear of terrible retribution for those who cross the ruler’s wishes: I would have loved to know more, and to see more than the quick peeks the novel afforded.

On the other hand, this is a story carried by motion, the constant, running motion of the two fugitives trying to stay at least one step ahead of their pursuers, so I understand how it would have been difficult to… stop and smell the roses, so to speak: still there is that nagging voice, asking for more, that is not so easily silenced. My hope is that the next installments in the series will shed more light on the whole scenario and bring about a few answers as well.

As an introduction to this world, The Red Hourglass is an intriguing offering that promises to develop into a quite exciting story, one whose follow-up I’m looking forward with great interest.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: SNOWSPELLED, by Stephanie Burgis

I received this novella from the author, in exchange for an honest review.

The two novels penned by Stephanie Burgis that I previously read – Masks and Shadows and Congress of Secrets – were both delightful finds, creating a very successful mix between historical events and magic-driven fantasy: not only were they enjoyable books, but they compelled me to search for more information on the history of the times chosen as background, so that I was able to learn details that were previously unknown to me, which is always a plus from my point of view.

You can therefore imagine how thrilled I was when Ms. Burgis contacted me to read and review the first of a series of novellas titled The Harwood Spellbook, set in an alternate Regency England, one where magic is quite commonplace.  This historical period is one I enjoy reading about, since it brings back fond memories of the times I shared Georgette Heyer’s books with my mother, and the premise for Ms. Burgis’ setting sounded quite fascinating, so I did not waste any time in accepting.

England – here named Angland – is a country where humans, elves, trolls and other creatures coexist more or less in peace, mostly through treaties stipulated after the bloody wars of the past. The country is ruled by women through the Boudiccate (so named after Queen Boudicca, who in this alternate history did manage to overcome the Roman invaders), while men are tasked with the exercise of magic, relinquishing every political power to their wives, mothers, sisters and so on.  The most amusing aspect of this social background comes from the overturned customs: men seem more inclined to gossip and trivial pursuits, while women deal with the responsibilities of government and the rule of the land.

Cassandra Harwood is a rule-breaker: to the chagrin of her mother, one of the Boudiccate’s more powerful members, she was never interested in politics, preferring to explore her potential for magic and therefore going against every social convention of the country. Her drive brought her to be accepted in the Great Library, the male academy teaching the finer points of magic, where she distinguished herself and where she met Wexham, a magician of equally strong powers and ultimately her fiancé.  As the story starts, however, Cassandra is recovering from the effects of a spell she should never have tried alone, and as a consequence she is forbidden to practice any kind of magic: to do so would mean courting death.

Cassandra feels her life is all but over, and hardly tolerates the sympathy of friends and family members, seeing in it a veiled reproach for the unconventional life choices of the past: for this reason she has broken her engagement with Wexham and is not looking forward to meeting him again at the formal reception in the Cosgrave estate, where the pacts with the Elf kingdom will be renewed. Other concerns will however claim Cassandra’s attention – among them an unseasonable and strangely intense snowfall that all but forces the guests to stay indoors – and she will be compelled to fight for her freedom without the help of the magic that until recently was her second nature.

I read the story in one sitting, unable to let go of the charming atmosphere depicted by the author, one where a subtle vein of humor runs throughout the pages thanks to the upside-down social customs of this alternate version of Regency England. The verbal skirmishes, the strict adherence to conventions, the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle…) snubs exercised by the guests, all the details I expected from interactions based on this historical period were there, but artfully shifted to encompass the differences created by the premise. Here are two delightful examples:

It was a truth universally acknowledged that women were the more pragmatic sex; that was why we were expected to run the government, while the men attended to the more mystical and imaginative realm of magic.

The gentlemen, of course, were expected to remain at the table, until a maid was sent to notify them that it was safe for them to join us in the parlor, meaning that the political conversations were officially finished for the night.

Cassandra is a very enjoyable heroine, stubborn enough to want to pursue her own goals in spite of conventions, but still prone to the weaknesses of the heart, whose existence she outwardly denies only to be constantly reminded – with loving humor – by her brother and sister-in-law, two other characters I liked from the very start.  And she can also be courageously strong when the time comes to face dangers or the creepy (oh, so creepy!) Elf lord who challenges her.

As a beginning to a new series, Snowspelled is a very promising one and also a departure from what this author’s previous novels led me to expect, a change of pace that I found totally enjoyable: where Masks and Shadows and Congress of Secrets held a darker core to their background, here the tone is lighter, more a divertissment than anything else, the kind of story that can take my mind off more serious concerns and leave me with the definite sense of having breathed some fresh, invigorating air.  Something we all sorely need now and then…

I certainly will look forward to more adventures from Cassandra & friends.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Orbit US Turns 10!

 

 

I’m very happy to share the news that Orbit US will be celebrating its tenth year of presence on the market for Science Fiction and Fantasy literature: you will find an interesting article detailing the history of these past ten years on Barnes & Noble Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog.

And in the best Hobbit tradition for birthdays, presents will be given instead of received: in this case a not-to-be-missed deal on the ebook version of 10 of the most successful Orbit titles for the past decade, including some of my favorites like James S.A. Corey LEVIATHAN WAKES,  M.R. Carey THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS, or Mira Grant’s FEED.  And many more…

Just click on this LINK to see the full array of amazing books.

Happy 1oth Birthday ORBIT!