Reviews

#RRSciFiMonth Short Story Review: THE HUNGER AFTER YOU’RE FED, by James S. A. Corey

 

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…

THE HUNGER AFTER YOU’RE FED

Seeing the name of James S.A. Corey listed among the authors of this anthology gave me a jolt of surprise and wonder, since it pointed to the writing team of Daniel Abraham and Ty Frank, creators of one of the best space opera series presently on the market, The Expanse. My hope that this would be a short story based in that universe was dashed immediately, although this Earth-based tale starts from one of the premises at the core of The Expanse, that the unemployed on our home planet need not worry about survival, since they are all allotted a monthly basic allowance, which insures they don’t starve.

As the protagonist of the story has learned the hard way, surviving might not be enough because human nature always requires something more, be it a deeper meaning or a more prosaic need to emerge from the crowd, to feel the worth of one’s individuality. As the man reflects at some point:  “When I was young, we were afraid to starve […] now we fear being less important than our neighbors.  All the vapid things that the wealthy did […] we are doing all the same things, but not as well, because we have less and we’re still new at it.”

So this man is risking everything on a search that seems both difficult and futile: discover the identity of radical writer Hector Prima, an author with a huge online following and an even bigger mystery surrounding his identity.  Like many others before him, the character in this story has gambled his entire savings on his quest, as if his life depended on such a discovery, as if this were the meaning he needs to give substance to his life.

Apart from the interesting – if slightly depressing – peek into this sliver of Earth society, the story offers the chance of pondering the consequences of a society where basic needs might be fulfilled, but something more vital is sorely missed, something whose absence creates an “overpowering emptiness that most people didn’t recognize”.

It’s a bleak, somewhat disheartening consideration that comes from a facet of the overall story we tend to forget while focusing on the conflicts developing in outer space, but still I don’t regret reading it.

 

My Rating: 

 

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Reviews

Review: THE AUTUMN REPUBLIC (Powder Mage #3), by Brian McClellan

 

My long and meandering way through this series has come to an end, and it was a very satisfying one, both story- and emotion-wise.  I used the words ‘long and meandering’ because I read the first volume Promise of Blood not long after it was published, and although I did like it, I did not feel strongly compelled to move forward with the series, since I had some slight issues with the book, mostly concerning the pacing and some characterizations.  Then some time ago I had the lucky opportunity of reading the ARC for the first volume of the sequel trilogy, Gods of Blood and Power, and I found there a more mature, more masterful control of story and characters, so that I decided to go back to… the origins so to speak, and discovered that hindsight helped me through the little ‘hiccups’ of the first book, so that once I reached the second, The Crimson Campaign, and this third installment, I could enjoy the tighter narrative and far more engaging storytelling. By now, Brian McClellan has become one of my favorite fantasy authors, one whose books I can always look forward to.

This final segment of the trilogy brings to a conclusion many of the threads that have been developing until now, bringing to a cusp the aftermath of Tamas’ revolution, the renewed conflict with the Kez and the resurgence of the ancient gods, and it does so with a sustained pace that never knows a moment of dullness. As enthralling as the events are, I would prefer to focus my review on the characters that move through them, because in The Autumn Republic they are explored in greater depth, and from new angles.  The only one I’m still unable, after three books, to really warm up to is Inspector Adamat: if I can sympathize with his past and present troubles and his ardent desire to keep his family safe, his segments are the ones that elicit the least interest in me as a reader, since I have been constantly incapable of forming any kind of attachment to this character.

It’s quite a different song for all the others, some of which we get to know better in this book, particularly Nila, the young laundress who recently discovered her Privileged powers: if at the beginning I wondered what part she was destined to play in the overall arc, here she fits wonderfully as the foil for Borbador, the only surviving member of the Adran cabal and Taniel’s long-time friend. Bo’s sometimes cavalier attitude toward his Privileged status and abilities might be tempered by what is basically a good nature and his affection for Taniel, but in the end he comes across as something of a spoiled child, and it falls on Nila, who he has taken on as an apprentice, to remind him of his duties as a human being and to cut him down to size when necessary.  I enjoyed quite a bit the interactions between the two of them and the way they end up supporting each other: what becomes clear at some point is Bo’s loneliness, and his yearning for the carefree days when he was part of Tamas’ family, so that I want to see this developing relationship between Bo and Nila as a way to re-create that sense of family he so clearly misses.

Vlora’s character enjoys some defining scenes in The Autumn Republic, and knowing the direction of her narrative arc in the following trilogy made me appreciate the hints of the more assertive personality she will develop later: here she is still trying to make amends for her past mistakes, and not for the first time I wondered at some of the comments I read about her not coming across as a very likable person, since I felt great sympathy for her since day one. Granted, she acted improperly and caused a great deal of grief, but almost no one (either readers or other characters) seemed to take into account her sense of loneliness and neglect that others manipulated for their own purposes, and that’s the reason I always felt more inclined to forgive her lapse.  Here she is able to mend her fences with both Tamas and Taniel, and at the same time starts on the road toward becoming her own woman instead of someone else’s protégée or betrothed, the beginning of a newfound independence that I can only approve of.    

Taniel, for his part, looks far more human than in previous instances: maybe being separated from Ka-poel (whose absence through most of the book is my only real complaint concerning this third volume) and his final admission about his feelings for her managed to shed a better light on him from my perspective. The whiny boy seems to be gone at last, and even though I still see some shadows in his character, he looks like a more grounded person, one who can recognize his failings and start to work on them. This becomes clear in his exchanges with Tamas, where for the first time in the series they actually speak to each other like father and son and not like two estranged acquaintances: their reciprocal admission of love, and the unspoken forgiveness for their past mistakes, is one of the more emotional passages in The Autumn Republic, one I realize I had been waiting for since book 1 and one that the author was able to convey with admirable deftness, down to a wonderful shared laugh that melts all the old misunderstandings and brings them together more than any words could.

Which finally brings me to Tamas, who has remained my favorite character throughout the story – faults included.  Here he sees his years-long planning nearing its conclusion, even though he’s aware that this does not mark the end of the struggle or that things did not turn out exactly as he envisioned them. There is a definite sense of needing to finally pass the reins to someone else, to give in to the weight of the years and the big and small injuries sustained during a long, hard career and the tight focus on his goal.  Tamas started taking stock of his past since the previous book, where he was assailed by some doubts about his ability to lead, so now that he sees himself at a crossroads and understands he left many things unsaid and undone, he feels compelled to correct any mistake he made along the way. Much as I enjoyed reading about his brilliant military strategy and his unwavering faith in the mission he set for himself, this softer side of Tamas complements wonderfully what was shown of the man until now, making him a more rounded and even more likable character – the true star of the narrative arc.

If I had read this trilogy when it came out, I would now be feeling quite bereft because I developed a deep fondness for this new fantasy genre and even more for the world Brian McClellan created, but as luck would have it, there is now more to be discovered in the next trio of books – and hopefully in many more that could follow.  The conclusion to the Powder Mage trilogy felt perfect in its promise for what is yet to come, but even more in the deeply touching feelings it engendered, even though they were tinged with sorrow: unfortunately this end is a bittersweet one, and if I understand the need for some of the author’s choices, I’m still in mourning for some of them – Brian McClellan has shown time and again he never pulls his punches, but when he sacrifices his characters he does so in a way that’s so balanced, in description and emotions, that I can forgive him for the pain we have to deal with…

The Powder Mage trilogy has now taken its place among my favorite stories, and it’s a world I will always enjoy visiting, in any form the author chooses.

 

My Rating:  

Reviews

Novella Review: GHOSTS OF THE TRISTAN BASIN (Powder Mage #0.8), by Brian McClellan

In my first search for short stories that complemented Brian McClellan’s epic about powder mages, I must have missed a few, and only a recent search unearthed other works I knew nothing about: it goes without saying that I would not think twice about reading them as well…

 

 

Set a few months before the events in Promise of Blood, this novella offers a double bonus: one that allows us to see more of Taniel’s deeds during the Fatrastan war for independence from the Kez, and one where we are introduced to a beloved character from Gods of Blood and Powder, none other than Mad Ben Styke.   As the story begins, the Tristan Basin Irregulars – the Fatrastan militia Taniel and Ka-poel have attached themselves to – have been harassing the Kez in the inhospitable swamps that cover the Basin, keeping them quite occupied with guerrilla warfare.

Returning to their base camp, they learn about new orders: the city of Planth, where Governor Lindet has retreated to regroup her forces, is threatened by a Kez army, and the Irregulars must get there quickly to shore up the city’s defenses. As grim as the situation appears, since the rebels are vastly outnumbered, a slim ray of hope is represented by the arrival of Colonel Ben Styke and his Mad Lancers, an elite troop that seems to be made out of warriors as berserker as their leader – and Planth will need their madness if the citizens want to survive…

As I said, there were two main points of interest in this story: for starters, I enjoyed seeing a very different Taniel from the one I met in the Powder Mage books. Much as he’s still trying to get out of the shadow of his very famous father, Taniel here appears like a more sympathetic character, a young man driven by the ideal of helping the region’s inhabitants gain their freedom from the Kez, whom he hates deeply since they were responsible for the execution of his mother.   He’s honing his skills in the conflict, and he’s also strengthening the ties with his local guide Ka-poel, the young mute woman whose weird abilities he’s just starting to know.  The only trait he shares with the older Taniel is his aversion to authority, especially when Lindet’s orders concerning the fate of Planth clash against his sense of duty.

That’s probably the main reason he seems to form a sort of bond with Ben Styke, the mountain of a man leading the Mad Lancers: the Ben Styke we meet here is also a very different person from the one appearing in Sins of Empire, since he has yet to endure the physical and psychological abuse of his long years in the prison camp, so that it’s a pleasure to witness the depths of joyful abandon as he launches himself in the activity he loves most – fight.  And fight he must, together with his Lancers and the Irregulars, if he wants to save the city, against almost insurmountable odds, yet there is more to him than just a practically invincible warrior, because here he exhibits humor, and cunning and courage, all wrapped into a carefree attitude that makes it impossible not to like him, and enjoy the pages that focus on him.

Losing myself in this story was a wonderful experience, and I strongly recommend it both to all McClellan fans and to those who still don’t know this author and series: you will not be disappointed…

 

My Rating:  

Reviews

Novella Review: RETURN TO HONOR (Powder Mage #1.5), by Brian McClellan

In my first search for short stories that complemented Brian McClellan’s epic about powder mages, I must have missed a few, and only a recent search unearthed other works I knew nothing about: it goes without saying that I would not think twice about reading them as well…

 

This story was quite a delightful find, not only because it features Vlora, but because it goes some way toward filling the empty narrative space between the events in Promise of Blood (where we learn of her dalliance with another officer and the breakup with Taniel) and her welcome return as Lady Flint in Sins of Empire.

Return to Honor begins shortly after the end of Promise of Blood, when Vlora is still very much a pariah because of her indiscretion, and also mourning the death of Sabon, one of Tamas’ closest friends and Vlora’s mentor.  A still-very-angry Tamas orders her to seek and capture a traitor who intends to defect to the enemy carrying important intelligence with him: what remains unspoken is that success might work a long way toward restoring, at least in part, the Field Marshal’s respect.   As encouraging as this might sound, the prospect of failure still hangs over Vlora, and what’s more she must do it alone, because Tamas does not intend to spare anyone to help her.

It’s impossible not to feel deeply for Vlora here: she’s conscious of her mistake and bitterly regrets it, but the worse part of the situation comes from the attitude of her fellow soldiers since they – either for personal inclination or to curry favor with Tamas – treat her like the worst kind of trash, even those that used to be her friends.  That’s when unexpected help comes in the person of the Field Marshal’s bodyguard, Captain Olem…

My knowledge of the shared history between Vlora and Olem in Gods of Blood and Powder enhanced my appreciation of this first encounter between them, where I could witness the ease with which they manage to work well together despite barely knowing each other, and more importantly where Olem’s laid back attitude acts like a balm on Vlora’s damaged soul, taking her out of her misery and bringing the sunnier side of her character to the fore.

One of the best Powder Mage short stories to date, indeed….

 

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Novella Review: GREEN-EYED VIPERS (Powder Mage #0.6), by Brian McClellan

In my first search for short stories that complemented Brian McClellan’s epic about powder mages, I must have missed a few, and only a recent search unearthed other works I knew nothing about: it goes without saying that I would not think twice about reading them as well…

Green-eyed vipers is set eight years before the events in Promise of Blood, as Field Marshal Tamas is still collecting allies in his plan to overthrow the Adran monarchy, and it opens on one of the many parties held by the nobility, where politics and personal liaisons move side by side in a complicated dance.  The lady of Skyline Palace, Petara, is a famous (or maybe infamous) widow well known for her wealth, influence and also for the habit of successfully wooing any man she sets her eyes on.  In this particular evening her sights are set on Tamas, a widower himself, and not for the first time: we learn that she has admired, and wanted, him for a long time, but like any good strategist she is patiently waiting for her plan to unfold, savoring every moment.

For his part, the Field Marshal does not seem averse to a little dalliance: he’s famous (or again infamous) for his ability to court young women, and there is a moment in the course of the story where Petara observes the worry of a noble as Tamas kisses his young daughter’s hand.  So everything seems to lead toward the widowed lady’s ultimate goal but… there is always a ‘but’, of course, because we are made privy to an important detail, one that will turn the tables in a most dramatic way.

To say more would be a huge disservice: this story and the surprises it holds must be enjoyed without prior knowledge – although at some point the writing on the wall becomes quite clear…

A great addition to the short works featuring this world, and one that feels quite satisfying.

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

Short Story Review: AND MEN WILL MINE THE MOUNTAIN FOR OUR SOULS, by Seanan McGuire

 

CLICK ON THE LINK TO READ THE STORY ONLINE

 

I don’t remember if I ever read a story or a novel from the point of view of dragons, and if I did it certainly did not made an impact on me as this short tale from Seanan McGuire, although I should not be surprised at all, considering the narrative skills of this author.

The dragons’ civilization, as depicted here, is indeed a cruel one, where the rulers become such by eating of the flesh and hearts of their predecessors, and there are always two of them: a prince, to lead the subjects and guide them into war, and a princess whose task is to dream of the future, and offer advice.  The dreams of the princesses are terrible and they consume the dreamers, aware of the inescapable fact that “…what a princess dreamt, she must dream true. Always.”

And what these princesses dream of is the end of the dragons, their total annihilation at the hand of men: no matter how brutal and merciless the dragons are, here they are shown as magnificent creatures whose blood turns into rubies, and flesh into diamonds and precious metals, thus tying the narrative in a novel way to the legend about dragons sleeping over hoards of riches. No matter how vicious they look, the dragons here take on the role of victim, of a civilization destined to fall under the sword of men bent on exterminating them and reaping the bounty hidden in their mountain dwellings, so that it’s impossible not to feel compassion for their end and rage for the greedy ignorance of men who are destroying such irreplaceable creatures.

But as the princess’ dreams prophesized long ago, it was all written and the dragons “never had a choice, not since the very beginnings of the world”.  A poignant, amazing tale that you don’t want to miss…

 

My Rating: