Reviews

Review: DEADLANDS:BONEYARD, by Seanan McGuire

I received this novel from Macmillan-Tor/Forge through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to all of them for this opportunity.

As a fan of author Seanan McGuire, I could not let myself miss this new book that promised to be something different from her usual Urban Fantasy offerings: from GoodReads I learned that the Deadlands book series is derived from a role-playing game, and since I know nothing of the gaming world I wondered if this might have somehow prevented me from fully enjoying the story, but I should not have worried because Boneyard walks quite surely on its own legs and what’s more it’s the kind of story that draws you in and does not let you come up for air until the end.  Which is hardly surprising at all, since it’s Seanan McGuire we’re talking about after all and, no matter how biased this might sound, her craft as a storyteller is such that she can draw you in and keep you there, not in spite of the darkness and the fear, but because in her hands these elements can become as mesmerizing as more light-hearted ones.

What’s more, the story’s background is set in the Wild West, in the era of bold settlers forging their way over uncharted territory to build a new life, but with the added spice of a supernatural/horror theme (and some steampunk elements as well): what could be more attractive, particularly since I read the book in the days just before Halloween?  For this very reason I decided that posting this review today would be quite appropriate 🙂

The story in short: the Blackstone Family Circus faces some difficult decisions, since winter is approaching and the show has not gathered enough income with their tour to survive comfortably during the cold season, so they are debating whether to accept a potentially remunerative gig in the Oregon settlement of the Clearing, a place where some companies are rumored to have reaped good earnings while others suffered unexplainable losses.  Annie Pearl is the keeper of the “oddities”, bizarre and often deadly creatures that she gathered all over the country, like the nibblers – piranha-like fish cursed with perpetual hunger and terrible teeth that jut “out at all angles, making it impossible for the fish to feed without biting themselves”: Annie has been with the circus for several years, and we soon learn that she escaped with her mute daughter Adeline from the house of her worse-than-abusive husband, and has been hiding with the circus ever since.  Once the company reaches the Clearing, a bowl-like hollow surrounded by a dense, strangely looming forest, they find the settlers less than welcoming and prone to bizarre behavior, to say the least.

The very first night after their arrival, the circus people find themselves fighting fire, nightmarish predatory creatures and the hostile indifference of the townies, and it falls on Annie – desperately searching for Adeline in the treacherous woods – to uncover the Clearing’s horrible secrets while also facing the long-dreaded return of her husband Michael bent on reclaiming what he considers his properties.  The main action develops over that long, horror-filled night that seems to go on forever, both for the characters and in the reader’s perception: to call this a compulsive read would indeed be the understatement of the century…

On the surface Boneyard is a story about horror and the supernatural, focused on surviving in a hostile environment that’s splendidly represented by the forest surrounding the Clearing, a place where trees seem to possess a life of their own and a malicious will, and shadows can take shape and form, pressing on the unwary travelers to sap their energy and life. Yet, on a deeper level, it’s a tale about facing one’s fears and refusing to succumb to them, about never giving in to despair to the point it might consume us: the legend of the wendigo that’s so skillfully employed here is indeed a case in point, where the hunger-stricken colonists give in to their deprivation and become the beast, devoured by a craving for flesh that can never be sated because it goes beyond the mere material plane and ends destroying one’s soul.

Annie has indeed been hiding for a long time, her sole goal that to protect Adeline: she left her home town of Deseret with literally only the clothes on her back, her infant daughter and the lynx Tranquility and we see through the artfully inserted interludes what she left behind – a man whose unwavering faith in science and in his god-given right to own her, body and soul, reveal him as a true monster.  Despite her need for concealment, however, Annie has grown stronger: caring for the “oddities” in her wagon she has learned to master different kinds and levels of fear and when push comes to shove she understands that she needs to take survival into her own hands and be the aggressor so that she will not become the victim.  Her example helps others find their own courage and the will to fight against the darkness: in this young Martin and his girlfriend Sophia are wonderful examples of timid people who, once faced with the prospect of annihilation, prefer to go down fighting rather than cower in fear waiting for the monsters to kill them.

The other great element of this story is the unstated but always present question about the nature of monsters and how the worst of them always start in human form: the wendigo I already quoted looks like a nightmarish beast, its appearance nothing but the outward manifestation of the shadier, more horrifying sides of our soul; the inhabitants of the Clearing have accepted the price to be paid to the flesh-eating creatures in the woods turning into willing accomplishes, even the younger among them – as shown by the kids who willfully send Adeline into the woods knowing what might find her.  The worst monster however remains Michael Murphy, Annie’s husband, whose depths of depravity and madness I will refrain from describing, leaving this discovery to my fellow readers.

By comparison, the creatures that Annie shows to the paying customers, the “oddities” meant to engender fear and revulsion, end up looking like friendly beings, the danger they represent merely coming from inescapable nature and not from the exertion of a twisted will – and their contribution to the story’s development does nothing but reinforce this notion, particularly in the case of Tranquility the lynx, who deserves a special mention.

Once more Seanan McGuire reveals her skills as writer, offering us a gripping story and some unforgettable characters: no matter the tale she chooses to reveal, rest assured that it will be an amazing experience.

 

My Rating: 

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Reviews

Review: THE KING’S BLOOD (The Dagger and the Coin #2), by Daniel Abraham

Despite my best intentions (road to Hell and paving stones…) I waited almost a whole year before returning to Daniel Abraham’s fantasy series, and now that I’ve read this second volume I hope I will not make this mistake again, because what looked quite promising in book 1 has turned here into a well-crafted, compelling story peopled with characters whose further definition becomes pure reader’s delight.

The King’s Blood resumes where The Dragon’s Path left, following the characters that were our eyes and ears in this world, although none find themselves at ease in their own circumstances: Cithrin bel Sarcour, the former ward of the Medean bank, has managed to create her own branch in Porte Oliva – thanks to the funds successfully saved from the destruction of the Vanai branch – but finds herself under the thumb of an auditor from the central headquarters, a woman with an accountant’s small mind and no flair for the risks that have made Cithrin such a formidable banker. Marcus Wester, former soldier and now Cithrin’s bodyguard and protector, is also chafing in the role of enforcer for the Porte Oliva branch, and while he’s devoted to Cithrin and her well-being, he’s somewhat unhappy, victim of a formless restlessness he’s not yet ready to acknowledge. Dawson Kalliam, one of the chief advisors of Antean king Simeon, has managed to prevent the coup that would have killed the king’s son and heir and put Antea at the mercy of their nearest neighbor, but Simeon’s failing health and the shifting political landscape force him to revisit his loyalties and question his principles.  And Geder Palliako, the young, ridiculed nobody that proved instrumental in defusing the attempted coup, and who rose to an unpredictable position of power, finds himself with an even heavier burden on his not-so-strong shoulders…

More than the first volume of this series, this second installment drew me into the world Daniel Abraham created: where The Dragon’s Path had the responsibility of introducing the readers to Antea and the main characters, The King’s Blood is able to solidify this background, conferring it a much-needed width and depth, and it does so not so much through lengthy descriptions and verbose information, but by having the characters interact with the world itself, by allowing the reader to observe it through their eyes and their different points of view.  Following their journey, being part of their thoughts and experiences, we see this place in all its complex richness and in its different aspects: from the bustling commercial chaos of Porte Oliva to the royal seat of Camnipol to the open vistas of the wilderness marked by the ancient jade dragon roads, this is a place that comes to life as if it were another character, with its changes in personality and looks.

And characters are indeed the strong point of the series, carrying and advancing the plot in a beautifully organic way, and always surprising the reader, the case in point being represented by Dawson Kalliam: in the first book I had him pinned as something of an authoritarian, someone with an eye always turned toward past and traditions, but as the story progressed I felt some growing sympathy for him, understanding how his attachment to honor and duty defined him.  Here he finds himself faced with some difficult decisions and a very questionable choice that – despite its dire consequences – invests him with the deep humanity that I felt was somehow missing from his makeup.  Much of it came of course from the interactions with his wife Clara, whose direct POV is introduced in this novel to my great appreciation: Clara is an amazing character, because while she adopts the deferential role assigned to women in this society, she is a very able and subtle mover and shaker, and finally in this book her skills and intelligence are showcased as she deserves.  There is a sentence where the author seems to foreshadow this, and it’s one that made me smile in appreciation when he wrote that “smoke seeped out of her nostrils like she was some ancient dragon hidden in a woman’s flesh”. Clara is indeed a dragon lady, and I look forward to seeing how her story will move forward.

On the other hand, Marcus Wester feels… diminished, for want of a better word: here is a man who needs a mission to truly feel alive, and he now feels that Cithrin has no further need of his protection, so that he’s now almost adrift in a sort of limbo.  It does not help that he has not resolved his feelings toward her, because if he started seeing her as the image of his long-dead daughter, there are moments when he seems to view her in a different way.  This inner conflict results in a rash decision subverting his long-held principles and pitting him against his second-in-command and longtime friend Yardem: what will come out of this development still remains to be seen.  And Cithrin herself is in a state of flux: no more the sheltered ward of the Medean bank, no more the frightened young woman protecting the precious cargo from doomed Vanai, she needs to grow into her own skin and finds herself hemmed in between the contemptuous attitude of the bank’s auditor and Marcus’ solicitous protectiveness, and is clearly chafing at both. Her solution to the impasse will bring her on a path that, so far, only planted a few seeds whose growth I’m eager to see.

But of course the main focus of interest remains Geder Palliako: there is nothing more dangerous than a man with a grudge given a position of power, and Geder possesses a long list of grudges indeed. If in book 1 I saw the danger of his giving in to the need for retribution, here he positively frightened me: he is a man who has lived most of his life in loneliness, and with little experience of the outside world, and now he wields enormous power, a power he’s afraid of, making him the easy prey of advisors with their own agenda. It’s difficult to pinpoint my feelings for Geder, because if at times I feel deep compassion for him, for what his life was before, and if I see the profound loneliness afflicting him – one that’s expressed in his easy, almost-brotherly relationship with young prince Aster, probably the only person he feels comfortable with – still I can’t help but recoiling at the unthinking carelessness about the consequences of his often merciless decisions. On one side there is the frightened, isolated young man, and on the other the dangerous monster he’s becoming, and as a reader I kept oscillating between these two extremes without being able to choose how I really felt.

As these amazing characters move forward with their individual journeys, the story keeps building up details, both big and small, that are clearly going to have far reaching consequences: the best feature of this series, as far as I can tell after the first two books, is the sensation that the author is placing his pieces on the board and that the game will gain in complexity and depth as it progresses.  Already The King’s Blood feels more complex and more focused than its predecessor: if this trend keeps up, I know that there is an engrossing story waiting down the line – and this time I will do all that I can to discover it as quickly as possible.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Short Story Review: CRYSTAL HOLLOWAY AND THE FORGOTTEN PASSAGE, by Seanan McGuire

 

Every time I start a story by Seanan McGuire I know there are good chances that she will be able to rip my heart to pieces: her shorter works seem to concentrate and distill the feelings she wants to convey into a more powerful, more effective mix, and “Crystal Holloway” is no exception.

CRYSTAL HOLLOWAY AND THE FORGOTTEN PASSAGE

(click on the link to read the story online)

It’s a story about finding secret passages to other worlds, or dimensions, something McGuire has explored more deeply in her recent “Wayward Children” series, but here the place where the protagonist Crystal finds herself is less dark, more conventionally magical: at some point the character mentions C.S. Lewis’ world of Narnia, and the comparison holds, since the land of Otherways is more like a fairyland than a dark mirror of our own primary world.

There are dangers here, granted, and young Crystal has become a sort of super-hero for the land, battling evil creatures like the dire bats we see in the opening of the story, and fighting side by side with humanoid rabbit Chester and the arachnoid Naamen.  She’s been able to move back and forth between worlds, but now that she is reaching her sixteenth year she feels the pull of this magical place, “a strange, beautiful, terrible world, with its talking spiders and its deadly, scheming roses” and she’s considering whether to stay permanently or return to her old life.  That is, until something happens that changes things – and Crystal – forever…

This story delves into the old dilemma between reality and fiction, between the need to believe in magic and the pressures from everyday responsibilities, and it resonates deeply with people, like me, who love being taken elsewhere by the skilled words of a storyteller.  How many times we, lovers of speculative fiction, have been told that we “need to stick to reality”?  How many times our reading choices have been branded as childish and silly?

That’s what this short story wants to show, that no one should have to make that choice, that we should be able to move freely between worlds – the imagined and the real – with the same ease as when we move from one room to another.  That there is no stigma attached to the need for dreams.

Sadly, there seem always to be some Truth Fairies, ready to warn us that “You can’t be part of two worlds forever. The heart doesn’t work like that. There isn’t room, any more than there’s room in a mouth for two sets of teeth. Baby teeth fall out. Childhoods end. That’s how adult teeth, and adult lives, find the space to grow.”

And Truth Fairies can be cruel indeed….

 

My Rating: 

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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Short Story Review: RATES OF CHANGE, by James S.A. Corey

 

RATES OF CHANGE, by James S.A. Corey

(click on the title to read the story online)

 

When I saw the name of James S.A. Corey on the list of authors whose short stories are hosted on LightSpeed Magazine, I dived straight in: Corey (the pen name of writers Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) is the author of The Expanse, one of the best space opera series of recent times – both in books and on television – so I hoped that Rates of Change might be based on that universe. It wasn’t, but this did not diminish my appreciation of it.

The premise: in the future, it will be easy to swap one’s consciousness into another body with the same ease with which we change dresses – it’s not clear from the story how these bodies are obtained, whether they are cloned and stored waiting for… occupancy, or if they are bodies of people who have given them up, either voluntarily or not.  What matters here is that it’s something of a common practice, so common that the exchange is not limited to human bodies, but can be effected with animals as well: one of the story’s characters, Diana, retraces the steps that brought her son Stefan to splice himself into the body of a manta ray as a form of fun experiment with his friends. An accident caused Stefan’s brain to be explanted from the manta and placed in a sort of ICU gel bath while waiting for recovery, and Diana waits for the procedure to complete its cycle and to know whether her son’s consciousness is still intact or damaged beyond repair.

Both Diana and her husband are now living in bodies that are not their original ones: she had to switch once to avoid dying of a devastating cancer, and again when she did not feel at home in the new body; her husband changed his in an attempt at a fresh beginning when his wife’s depression made it apparent that she was feeling like an intruder in her changed body.  Diana’s very fragile balance, one that progressively estranged her from her husband, friends and acquaintances, is further endangered by what happened to Stefan and she is terrified by the long-range consequences on identity and sense of self that can come from this far-too-easy way of escaping the troubles of one’s corporeal form.  As she muses, “everything is a lie of health and permanence, of youth permanently extended”, and seems to negate the expected course of flesh’s decay, the natural rhythm of life.

It’s a fascinating philosophical question, one that offers no easy answer – as it should be – and ends on a consideration that, from my point of view, builds a slight tie with one of The Expanse’s themes, that of what makes us human even when our bodies deviate from the accepted norm, as it happens to Belters in micro-gravity: the authors remind us that “being human isn’t a physical quality like being heavy or having green eyes” and that we need to look beyond the skin-deep levels.

Thought-provoking, indeed.

 

My Rating: 

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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: