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: 

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: 

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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: STRANGE DOGS (an Expanse novella), by James S.A. Corey

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

A confession first: when I saw this title among the monthly proposals from Orbit, I immediately clicked on the NetGalley link, without even checking first what the theme would be, or which character it might focus on.  For me it was more than enough that the story would be centered on the Expanse’s universe, one of the best (it not THE best) space opera series currently running. The rest would take care of itself… And it did, indeed: even though none of the familiar “faces” is present in this novella, the story is totally absorbing and my only complaint is that it ended too soon, leaving me with a lot of questions that I hope will be answered in the next full-length book(s).

Laconia is one of the worlds opened to colonization by the alien portal whose creation we saw in Abaddon’s Gate, and young Cara arrived there as an infant together with her parents; her brother Xan was born on Laconia and both of them don’t know any other life but that of their new home, Earth being more like a fairy-tale than an actual place.  Cara’s life is divided between school lessons, domestic chores and the times she spends near the pond at some distance from her home, where she observes the strange flora and fauna of her home world.  And Laconia looks indeed like a wondrous place: the descriptions of Cara’s surroundings create an image of a beautiful, alien world full of possibilities, a place devoid of grave dangers and just perfect for a young person’s imagination to run free.

Not everything is idyllic in this new world, though: the presence of soldiers, who landed on Laconia in the aftermath of the brutal attack on Earth from Nemesis Games, has placed a veil of unease on the settlers and at times Cara intercepts some conversations between her parents that make her wonder about the seriousness of their tone, and the half-understood sentences she is able to catch. Still, she does not delve too deeply on that, preferring to spend her time observing the animals that visit her pond: the weirdest encounter happens when she sees for the first time a group of peculiar dog analogues, creatures that seem possessed of a superior intelligence and that fire her curiosity and imagination, especially when they seem able to do the impossible.

I’m sorry I can’t be more specific, but to do so would be to spoil the whole story, particularly because at some point tragedy strikes and the dogs – the Strange Dogs – will prove pivotal in the upheaval of Cara’s life and the hard choices she will feel compelled to make.  Also, the fact that rogue Martian admiral Duarte is mentioned, and since he’s very likely the one who stole the protomolecule sample Fred Johnson was safekeeping, this detail lays a very uneasy feeling on the whole scenario, especially where the dogs and their peculiar abilities are concerned…

What I can safely share is how well-rounded Cara appears, despite the short length of the story, how she feels both very young and very mature at the same time, and how she is able to maintain a sort of… lucid innocence – for want of a better word – despite the harrowing events developing in her world.

There are so many narrative threads in this short story, and they are quite tantalizing because the authors just touch on each subject, moving swiftly to another one and so on, and that’s the reason I felt both intrigued and frustrated while reading the novella: my hope is that this might be a sample of what we will find in the next installments of the series, branching off in what promises to be a new and exciting direction, as it has done with every single book.  All the same, this was a very, very welcome “appetizer” while the wait for Persepolis Rising goes on…

 

My Rating: 

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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: 

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Novella Review: HOPE’S END (Powder Mage #4), by Brian McClellan

Another prequel story from Brian McClellan’s Powder Mage world: this one does not focus on Tamas directly, but rather sees him through the eyes of his subordinates, in particular Captain Verundish, a field officer.  At the beginning of the story Verundish is contemplating suicide: a letter she received from her philandering husband requests she divorce him, so he will be able to marry his mistress. Since it might be difficult for Verundish to grant him a divorce, or rather impossible, since her father – a minister of the faith – married them and he’s opposed to the idea of breaking a sacred bond, she should kill herself to free him – otherwise he will sell their daughter into slavery.  With this kind of threat hanging over the child, Verundish has every intention of ending her life to save her daughter, but the appearance of Captain Constaire – a fellow office and her lover – forces he to postpone her plan.

Constaire has been chosen to lead a “Hope’s End” attack against the stronghold of Darjah, a Gurlish city besieged by the Adran army, under the command of General Tamas: this kind of attack, as the name suggests, is nothing but a suicide mission to breach the wall and open the way to the bulk of the army, and the man wonders whether Tamas wants him dead, since Constaire is noble-born, and everyone knows that Tamas is not fond of people buying their army commissions rather than earning them in the field.   Her lover’s plight gives however Verundish an idea to solve her problem: if she were to lead the attack, and die in the battle, she will be a hero and her daughter would be safe forever…

With this story I realized something, that with Brian McClellan it’s easy, very easy, to grow fond of characters in a very short time, and Verundish is a case in point: a woman who is a capable warrior and at the same time a victim of circumstances and – probably – of warped customs.  If society allows her to enlist in the army and actively participate in campaigns, on the other hand it leaves her at the mercy of a vile husband who would be allowed to sell their own offspring to slavers: there is something twisted, and horribly wrong at work here, something that made me like her instantly as she battled with her options with lucid despair.  Moreover, her lover Constaire appears something of a whiner, and his attitude toward the orders he just received made me wonder if, with them, Tamas wanted exactly to “test his mettle”, and if he had just failed the test…

Through Verundish’s eyes we see Tamas not just as a character in the story, but as the man his soldiers know: a stern, uncompromising man who still has a few axes to grind against society, although he’s very aware of his own shortcomings, especially when he sees them mirrored in others: “Sometimes I envy those men who don’t let pride cloud their judgment”.  The more I get to understand him better, the more I’m eager to retrace my steps in the series and sees how the main story develops.

 

My Rating: