Reviews

Review: BENEATH THE SUGAR SKY (Wayward Children #3), by Seanan McGuire

 

 

This third installment in Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series takes us in a very different direction if compared with its predecessors: where the other stories were based on oddity and darkness, Beneath the Sugar Sky strives for a lighter mood even though the core concept still carries a dramatic vein, but for this reason it does not seem to work as well as the previous tales, at least from my point of view.

We’re back at Eleanor West’s school where we meet a new character, Cora, who used to dwell in the Trenches as a mermaid: together with her friend Nadya – who comes from a different water world – she’s spending time near the school’s pond when a girl literally splashes out of nowhere in its waters. She’s Rini, daughter of the former pupil Sumi, who was killed in Every Heart a Doorway: due to the nature of Nonsense worlds, Sumi was able to give birth to a daughter before she died (and even before she was old enough to become a mother, at that), but now that Rini has become aware of her mother’s demise, she’s becoming the victim of entropy and disappearing bit by bit.  Asking and obtaining the help of her mother’s fellow students, Rini proceeds to recover Sumi’s bones from the Halls of the Dead – where we meet again Nancy, happily back in her role as a fleshy statue – and then moves to her home world of Confection to find Sumi’s heart and soul and make her whole again, so that Rini can go on living.

Confection is a world entirely made of sugar, gingerbread and candy, but it hides a darker side because of the Queen of Cakes’ cruel rule, as she tries to bend reality to her own twisted desires; the Queen’s attempt to stop the group of friends from attaining their goal proves to be one of the biggest obstacles in their quest, and it almost costs them dearly, but still it’s not enough to imbue the story with the kind of drama that is this series’ trademark.

The spun-sugar and candy nature of Confection might have been an attempt to lighten the mood of the series, and the group’s adventures – despite the seriousness of the almost-impossible task they set themselves to – follow a strange, outlandish pattern that looks more confused than anything else and robs it of much of the urgency inherent in the quest itself: Rini’s piecemeal disappearance and her need to have her mother back feel more like narrative devices than the emotional signposts they should be, and I never truly felt any commitment to the kids’ mission or its final outcome.

If the narrative somewhat suffers from this change of tone, losing some of the smoothness I have come to expect from Seanan McGuire’s works, the characters fare no better: with the exception maybe of Christopher, about whom we learn a little more, the other “old hands” see practically no evolution in the course of the story, and the new ones like Cora become mere allegories for the issues the author wants to explore, which is a change of pace and intensity in McGuire’s usual way to address them.   Until now I have always admired the way in which this writer choose to discuss important topics like diversity, perception of self, and so on, in a way that never felt preachy or heavy-handed, just laying down the basics and leaving to the readers the welcome task of thinking about them.    Here though, Cora has to deal with the fact that she’s overweight and has always been stigmatized and mistreated because of it: this detail is mentioned practically every time she is the p.o.v. character, so that instead of being an issue that should lead us to deeper considerations, it becomes an annoying repetition that adds nothing to Cora’s psychological makeup as a person and in the end makes her appear as whiny, and shallow.   

I missed the effortless dignity with which Seanan McGuire usually tackles the matters she cares about and drives home her message, and I believe this is one of the reasons I enjoyed Beneath the Sugar Sky less than I expected and less than it deserved.  My hope is that this might be just a small bump along the road and that the next installments in this series will return to the kind of quality I’ve come to associate with this author.

My Rating: 

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Reviews

Review: HEAD ON (Lock In #2), by John Scalzi

I received this novel from the publisher through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to both of them for the opportunity to read this work.

Readers of my blog will know by now that John Scalzi is one of those authors whose books I grab almost without looking at the back cover blurb, and this was no exception, especially considering that I enjoyed its predecessor Lock In very much. Once more I found myself caught in a captivating story that expands on the previously established background: for those who have not read Lock In and the prequel novella Unlocked, Scalzi postulates that a particularly virulent strain of flu sweeps around the world killing many and leaving a percentage of the survivors locked in their own bodies – brains alive and functioning, but unable to move or to communicate with the outside world.  Haden’s Syndrome (so called from the USA First Lady, probably the most notorious victim of the virus) spurs the international community to find a way to bring the people afflicted back into contact with the rest of the world: first a neural net is devised that allows Hadens to communicate with each other in the virtual space of the Agora, then a sort of robotic, remotely controlled body (or threep) is implemented to grant them mobility and the possibility to interact with non-Hadens, leading as normal a life as possible.

Like its predecessor, Head On focuses of Chris Shane, a Haden and an FBI agent, paired with the more experienced detective Vann: after reading the first book, I discovered from online discussions that John Scalzi had left out on purpose any indication about Shane’s gender, to stress how it doesn’t necessarily define a character, or what they can do. To say the truth, while reading Lock In I thought about Chris as male for no other reason that it made sense to pair a younger, inexperienced male rookie agent with a more seasoned, more pragmatic female partner like Vann, but on hindsight I realized that it didn’t make that much of a difference in their working and interpersonal dynamic.  With this new novel I was ready to see how the lack of information on Chris’ gender would play in my perception of the story, and after a while I realized that it worked no matter what, that I cared only about Chris’ journey as the current investigation developed, and that was all that truly counted in the end.

The action starts some time after the events depicted in the previous book, and it does indeed begin with a tragic occurrence: a well-known sports player dies in mysterious circumstances during an important match, and the fact that the event is being aired and the players’ vital statistics uploaded for everyone to see, gives the start to a veritable avalanche of outlandish speculation. The match was no ordinary sports event, since it concerned Hilketa, a cross between rugby and the most ferocious gladiatorial games – a sport played by Hadens with their threeps, and one that is acquiring more and more attention not only from the Haden community, but also from the non-afflicted public and players, with increasing talk about including non-Hadens in threeps as Hilketa players.  The threeps are an important part of the game itself, since the physical damage incurred by the participants is heavy, and because one of the rules requires that a player be labeled as “goat”, and their head forcibly detached from the body so that it can be used as a score-signing part by the opponent team – clearly not something one could do with a flesh-and-blood individual.    When Duane Chapman, the rising star of the Boston Bays, loses his threep’s head for the third time in the same game, it becomes quickly clear that something is wrong with his physical body, and once he falls prey to seizures, death ensues in a matter of minutes.

How could the damage inflicted on the threep have repercussions on Chapman’s body is the first question facing the investigative team, and as Shane and Vann launch into their inquiry they discover several layers of financial and political implications underlying the structure of the Hilketa sports league, and here I must stress how John Scalzi managed to keep my attention focused on a topic that would normally not interest me, to put it mildly.  I’m not a fan of spectator sports, and often think that the hype surrounding sport events sounds somewhat exaggerated and the emphasis of commentators quite over the top, even though I acknowledge the fact that my lack of interest might play a major part in that assessment: with Head On, though, the background theme did not bother me at all, and I found any mention of Hilketa and its surrounding apparatus quite interesting, which means that the author was able to draw me in despite my issues. Well done indeed…

The most interesting part of the story, however, is the one concerned with Hadens, especially in the way they are still adapting to a continuously evolving society that has partly lost the connection with the emotional impact of their tragedy – as it happens with many instances when they become a common fact of life.  In a way, Hadens and their threeps are now an almost mundane fact of life, and the positive side of this is that there is no more question of their acceptance; on the other hand, however, this has led to the withdrawal of a good portion of government funding for afflicted people, so that many of them face economic difficulties in the maintenance of expensive threeps and in the much more costly maintenance of their immobile bodies, that still need to be cared for.  It struck me deeply to see how the threeps, while affording Hadens the chance of interacting normally with the rest of humanity, have in some way robbed the syndrome’s victims of the recognition of their basic helplessness, of their continued need for specialized medical care.

And that’s not all, because aside from ordinary and extraordinary ‘creature comforts’, so to speak, the needs of Hadens concern human companionship too, something that is denied their paralyzed bodies as well as their threep “vehicles”: there is a moment where Shane’s parents are talking with their offspring through the threep, while at the same time Chris’ mother busies herself with some hair trimming on the actual, paralyzed body, as a way of still connecting physically with her child.  In this instance Chris comments about the need for human touch that Hadens experience, the necessity to still feel connected, feel part of their families and of the outside world.  It’s a very moving moment, one where we are brought to realize, once again, how our perceptions might lead us astray and rob us, and others, of some essential connection with our fellow humans, especially when they suffer from some kind of affliction.

There are many, many layers to this story underlying the surface of the investigation on the player’s death, and they are all intriguing and thought-provoking, which is something I’ve come to expect from a Scalzi novel, and once more I was not disappointed. The pace was brisk, the humor well-balanced, the characters believable: one could not really ask for more.   Highly recommended.

My Rating: 

Reviews

Short Story Review: THE FIXED STARS (An October Daye Story), by Seanan McGuire

 

Finding a complementary short story to Seanan McGuire’s October Daye series is always a pleasant discovery, and it’s an even better one when, as is the case of this short work I found in the Baen Free Library, it deals with events and people other than Toby and her circle of friends and family, widening the background of this complex and many-faceted Urban Fantasy series.

(click on the link to read the story online)

It took me a little while to find my bearings in The Fixed Stars, until I understood that it tells of an old battle between Faerie’s firstborns and their changeling descendants, here called merlins – the reason for which I understood once their leader came on-stage, a powerful, revered warrior named Emrys.  The story is told from the point of view of a firstborn, watching the besieging merlin army camped under the walls of Broceliande castle before what will be the decisive battle.  The narrating firstborn goes here under the name of Nimue but says this is only one of many, and when at the end of the story her brother calls her “Annie”, my theory about her real identity was confirmed (and my pleasure at being right and meeting her here): compelled to always tell the truth, Nimue plays a dangerous gamble in the bloody game between the fae and their mixed-blood descendants, one that will end badly no matter what, since she’s aware that “the nobility […] was eager to wet their swords on merlin blood. The fact that the men outside our walls were our distant descendants didn’t matter to them. My brothers and sisters had raised their children to believe that nothing outside of Faerie had value”.

The leanings of Nimue’s heart are quite clear here, and they go a long way toward explaining her attitude in later times, when she will often lend her gruff but precious help to a certain changeling…

A sad and lovely story, and one I’m very happy to have found.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Short Story Review: LOST, by Seanan Mcguire

 

Read the story online

 

Reading this shortly after my encounter with Christina Henry’s “Lost Boy”, this story resonated with me in a deeper way that it would have otherwise: it’s a tale about eternal childhood and adventures and it speaks of the need for both, and also the price that it entails.

The story is told from the point of view of Daniel, now well into adulthood and probably old age, and he recalls what happened when he was just past his fifteenth birthday and the children of the world, those younger than him – including his sister Torrey – started looking fixedly at the night sky and humming a strange, compelling song.  Shortly afterwards, in one fateful night, all those children disappeared, never to be seen again.

This is a bittersweet story – more bitter than sweet since poor Daniel is marked by the awareness that he had whatever touched his sister and all the others within his grasp, but just because of an accident of birth he could not take part in what happened. And he’s one of the few who is unable to put a different face on this kind of rapture and call it an epidemic, like the rest of the world does to cover its shared incomprehension of the event.

The theme of innocence needing to go on beyond the time when adulthood sets in and takes away our dreams, our capacity for them, seems to be one that’s very dear to the author, and here she managed to convey it in a way that I found deeply moving, even in the unavoidable cruelty toward those who remained behind.

 

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Short Story Review: HOMECOMING, by Seanan Mcguire

Oh, what a surprise! Another Seanan McGuire story!  🙂
Bear with me, I do like her writing…

 

CLICK ON THE LINK TO READ THE STORY ONLINE

 

 

This was an incredibly weird story, one that had me puzzled until the very end when everything became clear – still the weirdness was deeply compelling and never for a moment I thought about not seeing it through until I understood what it was all about.

It all starts in a locker room where two groups of cheerleaders prepare for their show of support to their respective football teams: it’s the night of THE big game, and they are both nervous and excited. Nothing strange about it all, until the girls reach the playing field and we see that the players of both teams are wearing white, non-descript uniforms, nothing like the red and rust of the Falcons or the blue and silver of the Ravens, as the girls are wearing.   More stranger still, the players start wearing more proper uniforms only when their names are given, and as we learn that they are transported to the stadium on the moment of their death…

I’m loathe to say more, because this is the kind of story that must be read – and appreciated – with a minimum of prior information: what I can safely share is that it’s a deeply compelling story, one that drew me in like a spell, and let me tell you that it was a powerful one since it kept me glued to the pages despite the core theme, that of team sports, which holds little or no interest to me…

On hindsight, I believe that only someone as talented as Seanan McGuire, whose storytelling skills often border on the uncanny, could have taken hold of my imagination in this way and kept it there until the final, poignant reveal.

Quite a ride, indeed…

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Short Story Review: EACH TO EACH, by Seanan McGuire

 

(click on the link to read the story online)

 

 

Those who have read “Drowning in the Deep” and/or “Into the Drowning Deep” by Seanan McGuire, will probably something more intriguing in this short story than readers who never encountered the author’s version of the mermaid myth. Still, I would recommend it to all her fans and even to those who have not sampled her works yet, because I believe it’s a good, engaging example of her storytelling style.

The premise for “Each to Each” is that global warming has caused water levels to rise so that dry land has become scarce and humanity turned to the sea to try and create a new living environment, while seeking as-yet-untapped resources in the depths.  To do so, and to be able to live underwater, some drastic physical changes are necessary, and a literally new breed of sailors is enlisted to survey the oceans in a way that baseline humans would be unable to: this marks the launch of Project Amphitrite, also known  as Mermaids for the Military – the recruits being all women.

The choice is made at first because the genetically mutated humans would be living in submarines, and women are statistically more tolerant of restricted living conditions, very rarely – if ever – resorting to violence when suffering from ‘cabin fever’. Yet with time another reason for the choice comes to the fore: these women are the pioneers for what might be the future of humanity, and to present that future in the best possible way, to convince ‘drylanders’ that they must accept the change, that inevitable choice must be given a pleasant face and a compelling look, no matter how that might clash with mutated physiology, or an individual’s discomfort:

 

“we’re living advertisements for the world yet to come […] still they see us as fantasies given flesh[…] How easy is it to fear something that you’ve been seeing in cartoons and coloring books since you were born?”

“All this work, all these changes to the sailors, and they still can’t change our required uniforms – not when we still have things that can be called “feet” or “legs” and shoved into the standard-issue boots or trousers.”

 

Yet such drastic changes as these women undergo – changes that bring along pain and suffering for the body and profound adjustments for the mind – lead to an inevitable alteration in outlook and mindset, and little by little these pioneers feel detached from baseline humanity and progressively unable to tolerate the surface world from which they come, or the rigid rules imposed on people that have little or no connection with the beings they used to be, or the organization that enlisted them – because, as the narrator says,  “the chain of command dissolves under the pressure of the crushing deep.”

I found this to be a deeply emotional tale, even though McGuire, as usual, keeps her narration very terse and never gives in to easy sentimentality: this is the kind of story that stays on my mind for a long time after I finish reading it, and one I will not forget to easily.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: BLOOD OF ASSASSINS (The Wounded Kingdom #2), by R.J. Barker

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

In 2017 I placed the first volume of this trilogy, Age of Assassins, among the best debuts of the year and also my favorite reads, so I had great expectations for this follow-up novel: let me say up front that those expectations were more than exceeded by Blood of Assassins, that is not only a worthy sequel but also an amazing story on its own.

Five years have elapsed since the end of the first book, and they have not been easy years either for the world or for assassin-in-training Girton Clubfoot: the political situation has degenerated into all-out war between the three pretenders to the throne of the Tired Lands – Aydor, the former queen’s son, ousted by young Rufra, Girton’s friend, and finally pretender Tomas.  War is never good news, but in a land still suffering from the sorcerer-enhanced conflicts of the past, that brought great devastations with them, this new war is adding a further layer of misery to an already grim situation.  Girton and his master, Merela Karn, have fared no better: to escape from the bounty hunters set on their tracks, they have been forced to abandon their trade and attach themselves to mercenary bands, where Girton’s exquisite skills as an assassins have been replaced by a more brutal approach to killing, namely the use of a war hammer.

Ambushed by a band of savages, the two barely effect an escape toward Castle Maniyadoc – theater of Girton’s previous adventures – but Merela has been poisoned and hovers on the brink of death, leaving her apprentice bereft of her balancing advice and cooler thinking.  What’s worse, Girton’s ability to wield magic – a dangerous skill in the Tired Lands, one that could sentence him to death – is growing stronger, and the scars that Merela tattooed on his skin to keep them at bay are not working as expected, so that the young man must battle daily against the impulse of unleashing such deadly power.

Reunited with his friend Rufra, now King, Girton has little time to enjoy the meeting, because he learns of a plot to kill his friend, orchestrated by a spy that must have worked its way among Rufra’s closest advisers: tasked with this apparently impossible job (Rufra does not seem to worry too much about the possibility of treason), and in constant worry about Merela’s chances for recovery, Girton faces the most difficult time of his young life, one where conflicting emotions and needs threaten to overwhelm him and make him lose everything he holds dear.

Blood of Assassins is a deeply compelling story, one where the details we previously learned about this world fall into a wider and more fascinating context: we come to understand that the central power, the one held by the remote figure of the High King, could not care less about what happens in the outskirts of the realm, where wars are fought, won and lost while the supreme ruler prefers to wallow in his court’s more or less dubious pleasures.

There is a definite sense of lawlessness in the Tired Lands, of the rule of the strongest, that makes the suffering of the peoples dwelling there all the more poignant: the Landsmen, that could be compared to a sort of official army, are more interested in rooting out sorcerers – be they real or simply imagined – and their allegiance often hangs on the whim of their current leader.  The recent turmoil has given rise to a peculiar band of outlaws, calling themselves the Nonmen, who delight in berserker attacks and in the vicious torture of their victims – and sometimes of their own members, with a sort of reckless, bloody abandon that speaks of madness, and worse.  And last but not least the priesthood, that already did not come out with shining colors in the previous book, here looks like an added complication – both moral and political – to a very dire situation.

All this comes together in a story that kept me on my toes for the whole length of the book, among unexpected twists and turns, discoveries and betrayals, and a final battle that left me literally breathless with suspense. Add to that a powerful writing that manages to remain almost lyrical even while describing bloody skirmishes or to-the-death duels, and you will understand why I found this book so enthralling.

As fascinating as all of the above is, the focal point of Blood of Assassins remains Girton: he is a very different person from the one we left at the end of Book 1, and to say that here he’s in a bad place would be a massive understatement.   The five years spent as a mercenary (and with Landsmen, no less, with all the added dangers that his potential for sorcery entails) have both hardened and unraveled him, taking him away from his training as an assassin and teaching him far too much about brute force.  His relationship with Merela has changed as well: there is a thread of resentment toward her, that remains however mostly unexplored due to the fact she’s out of the picture for most of the book, and that comes from the necessity of the scars she must carve on his body to keep the magic at bay. This necessity seems to have placed some cracks in their mutual trust and generated a deep conflict in Girton, who still feels the strong pull of his loyalty – his love – for Merela, while battling with the impulse to rebel against all she taught him.

Losing Merela’s support so early in the story proves almost catastrophic for Girton: she is not only his teacher, his surrogate mother and the only person he used to trust implicitly, even before himself, she is also the one who guides his logical process, and his moral compass, so that her absence makes itself dramatically clear in the sequence of bad decisions Girton takes while pursuing his task for Rufra.  Seeing him so unhinged is a painful experience, because if sometimes I felt like shaking some sense into him, my prevailing emotion was compassion because I could not forget the heavy amount of damage he had to go through in a relatively short life.  And what further damage might be visited on him in the course of the story: as with the previous book, we are given to understand here that we are reading an older Girton’s memoirs, and given as well a few hints of more tragedies to come.  As harrowing as that might be, I know I would not give up this opportunity, because I’m deeply invested in this character and his journey: at the end of this book I saw that the third and final volume already has a title – King of Assassins – and that GoodReads shows its cover, so I imagine my curiosity will be satisfied before long.  Still it will feel like a too-long wait….

 

 

My Rating: