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.

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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: 

Reviews

Short Story Review: THE TALE OF THE WICKED, by John Scalzi

 

 

This is another chance discovery that I made while searching for another work from author John Scalzi: the story focuses on a space battle between a Confederation ship, the Wicked, and a Tarin battle cruiser, one of the many engagement in what looks like a long, drawn-out conflict.

Both ships have been fighting for several days, and sustained heavy damage, but the Tarin ship is in worse shape and the last jump it effected seems to have spent all of their power, so that the captain of the Wicked decides to try one final assault and follows in hot pursuit.  That’s when something unexpected happens: both ships find themselves hanging in space, unable to start their engines or fire weapons, and that’s the work of the ships’ artificial intelligences, a new model capable of independent thought.  The A.I. of the Wicked encountered Asimov’s three Laws of Robotics and decided to apply them, taking the course of the engagement out of the humans’ hands, unless they choose to resolve the conflict with the Tarin in a less destructive manner – and it has enrolled the Tarin ship’s A.I. as well…

This short story has all the flavor of old-fashioned science fiction, and it could not be otherwise since it’s a clear homage to one of the stars of the genre, Isaac Asimov, and his most famous creation, the Laws of Robotics that postulate that an artificial construct cannot harm a human being, that said A.I. must obey a human’s orders, unless it implies harming another human, and finally that it must protect itself, unless this action contradicts the first two rules.  The way in which the Wicked’s central brain decided to apply these rules to the ongoing conflict is a delightful show of logic mixed with a very peculiar sense of humor, showing that a higher-function artificial intelligence does not develop only consciousness, but also other human characteristics.   It’s not only an amusing point of view, it’s a refreshing look on the trope of the computer-turned-rogue that becomes a danger, a very far cry from 2001’s HAL 9000.

Recommended for all Scalzi fans, but not only them…

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: KING OF ASSASSINS (Wounded Kingdom #3), 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.

King of Assassins is without doubt the best installment in a trilogy that was both an amazing discovery and an engrossing read from the very beginning, although it saddens me to acknowledge the fact that there will be no more stories about Girton Clubfoot and his journey.

Looking back, I now see how each book gave us a different version of Girton in his evolution as a person: at first he was an almost innocent boy, schooled in the subtle ways of the assassins, granted, but still very naïve where interactions with other people were concerned, and I warmed instantly to him, particularly in light of the flashbacks to his early childhood; in the second volume he was more of a sullen teenager, the weight of his nature keeping him apart from others and adding an unwelcome surliness and a stubborn streak that often made me want to slap him; and finally, in this last book, he’s a grown man, more at peace with himself and the magic abilities he must hide, but at the same time very world-weary and burdened by a veneer of sadness that I found quite touching.

Set several years after Blood of Assassins, the story opens with the preparations for the assembly that will decide the coronation of the next High King, after the death of the former ruler in the aftermath of the Forgetting Plague: this scourge left a further painful mark on the Tired Lands, so that tensions run high due to the political infighting between the contenders and the rise of new powers that threaten the already fragile equilibrium of the land.  King Rufra intends to gather his allies and make his play for the seat of the High King, convinced that the reforms he was able to effect in his own realm must be extended to everyone, but knows he’s walking on an uphill road, since not everyone is onboard with his new course.  Moreover, the years have not been kind to him: his first wife died in childbirth, and even though a new spouse just gave him another heir, he’s suffering from that loss, the physical injuries sustained in battle and the weight of his office.

Once more, Girton finds himself torn between his loyalty to Rufra, his duty as the king’s heartblade and assassin, and the need to keep the magic inside himself concealed even when he chooses to use it: it’s not an easy balancing act, especially since the dynamics between Girton and Rufra have changed, and not for the better.  Already, in the previous book, I was able to observe some distance growing between the two friends, mostly due to some misunderstandings and Girton’s morose attitude, but here it’s something deeper and far more damaging for the friendship that bound these two people since their youth.  If Rufra’s duties require that he keeps himself aloof even from his most trusted advisers, the way he relates to Girton makes it plain that there is more than the need to be king first and friend second: it’s plain that there is a form of resentment there, poisoning Rufra’s mindset, and it seems to come from acknowledging his need for Girton’s assassin skills while begrudging this very necessity because it runs contrary to his principles.  This comes to light quite clearly when Rufra requires that Girton act as he was trained, but does not openly ask for that, maybe as a form of plausible deniability, granted, but also because he hates himself for needing that kind of intervention, and therefore places the loathing for it on the man who executes the unspoken orders rather than the one who issued them.   It’s all very convoluted – and very human – but still it hurt me to see how their friendship is soured by this necessity, and even more seeing how Girton acknowledges this with sad acceptance.

The coldness in the relationship with Rufra is however balanced by another reversal in behavior, one that started in the previous book and here reaches its completion: Aydor began his journey as the heir of Manyadoc’s ruler, an uncouth, cruel bully who delighted in inflicting pain and humiliation on others, but after being ousted by Rufra he changed and slowly but surely transformed into an ally.  In Blood of Assassins, Girton was wary of this transformation, and kept Aydor at a distance, but in this last book the intervening years have changed that, and theirs is a friendship based on trust, on shared dangers and on Aydor’s boisterous  geniality that acts as a wonderful counterpart to Girton’s surliness.  I was surprised at the depth of my sympathy for Aydor and even more at the ease with which the author was able to change my feelings for this character while presenting his evolution in a believable, organic way: it’s far from easy to effect such a transformation with plausible effectiveness, and R.J. Barker managed the feat with admirable skill, as Aydor’s segments of the story ended up being like the proverbial rays of light in a dark, stormy background.

And this time around the main narrative thread is indeed darker than usual: in the aftermath of the High King’s death there is not just the customary unrest due to the disappearance of a ruler, nor are either the political maneuvering or some of its bloodier applications anything new or particularly shocking; what’s really troublesome is the feeling that some sinister forces are at play here and that their success will plunge the Tired Lands into an even worse situation than the one they are already suffering from.  Girton’s job appears more difficult than before, and the price to be paid for any mistake far higher than it could have been before, which makes for a quite compelling reading until the very end, where some unexpected revelations shed a completely different light on past events.

There is another element that captivated me deeply, and it’s Merela’s back story, given in bits and pieces in the customary interludes between chapters: one of the reasons for my fascination for her character was the aura of mystery surrounding her, and here we are finally afforded a look into her past and a better understanding of the person she became, both as an assassin and as Girton’s mentor. Placing this information here, at the end of the series, makes some of the events take on deeper meaning and it’s also the source of the most emotionally wrenching moment of all three books: just thinking about it still brings tears to my eyes, and I’m not usually prone to crying…

Despite the heartache, and the sadness I already mentioned for the end of the series, this was an enormously engrossing read, and one I cannot recommend enough to all lovers of fantasy.

 

My Rating:  

Reviews

Short Story Review: THE PRESIDENT’S BRAIN IS MISSING, by John Scalzi

 

I stumbled by pure chance on this short story by John Scalzi while searching for one of his earlier books that I missed, The Android’s Dream, and of course there was no doubt that I would read this brief work as well: the title was indeed intriguing, and knowing the author’s penchant for humor I expected to be amused by it – and indeed I was.

Part of the fun in this story comes from my familiarity with shows like The West Wing and its ‘dark side’ twin House of Cards, detailing the dynamics of the White House behind the closed doors the public never crosses, especially where appearances and public image are concerned.

In this particular case however the presidential aides are faced with an unconceivable situation: an MRI scan on the President reveals that his brain has disappeared, and yet the man is still alive and functioning – well, apart from the impossibility to submerge his head in the pool, since every time he tries, the head “pops back up like a cork”.  This is the premise from which the short, hilarious story starts, poking some fun at the intricacies of politics and the dichotomy between appearance and reality: even though the staff’s descriptions don’t give a shining picture of the President – a man who is not exactly brilliant and who won the election because his opponent was involved in a sex scandal during the campaign – they worry about the possibility of a situation they might be unable to deal with, and so they start to search for the cause of the mysterious disappearance, and of a possible solution.

Quick, entertaining and in line with what I’ve come to expect from a Scalzi divertissment.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: THE FLOWERS OF VASHNOI (Vorkosigan Saga #14.1), by Lois McMaster Bujold

 

 

After reading Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen, I had to deal with the sad certainty that no more stories from the Vorkosiverse would be forthcoming: that latest novel had the flavor of finality, of the author having closed the door on those characters and their lives, leaving them to continue unobserved by prying eyes.   So I was happily surprised when fellow blogger SJ HIGBEE showcased this novella, a very welcome and quite unexpected find, one I might have missed for a longer time if not for her post, for which I’m very grateful.

The focus here is not so much on Miles as on his wife Ekaterin, which brings an interesting change of pace and also the possibility of observing Miles from an external point of view – and I must say that sharing Ekaterin’s observations about her rambunctious husband, as he engages with their children in target practice with food against the house cat, is just as entertaining as following any of Miles’ adventures, not to mention that it shows how the passing of years and the weight of responsibility have not changed him at all. Thankfully…

The district of Vorkosigan Vashnoi has been mentioned often in the course of the saga, and it’s an interdicted zone due to high levels of radioactivity dating back to the heavy bombardment from a past Cetagandan invasion: the place had been bequeathed to Miles from his grandfather Piotr, probably as a form of not-so-subtle sarcasm considering what the old man thought of the deformed grandson he tried to murder in his crib.  As the story begins, the radiation levels have started to subside, and Ekaterin has enrolled the Escobaran scientist Enrique Burgos – the creator of the (in)famous butterbugs first appearing in A Civil Campaign – to help in the requalification of the area.

Doctor Burgos has bio-engineered a new kind of butterbugs – the radbugs – whose function is to ingest the contaminated flora and soil of the Vashnoi territory, incorporating the radiation into their bodies and slowly but surely taking away the pollutants, so that the region can be made habitable again.  During one of their tours of inspection of the test area where the first generation of radbugs has been released, Ekaterin, Enrique and their ranger escort make an amazing discovery: the area is not deserted, on the contrary there are clear signs of habitation – and someone has been stealing a good number of radbugs…

This very enjoyable novella felt to me like some sort of mirror image of Miles’ adventure in The Mountains of Mourning, where he had to confront the harsh reality of what happened to children born with radiation-induced malformations: however, where Miles had to deal with some tragic revelations that felt much more dramatic due to his own physical problems, Ekaterin’s discovery runs on a lighter path, one where the inherent drama is tempered by humor and the acknowledgement of the fact that Barrayar’s outlook toward those who are not perfect is changing, and for the better.

As always, it was a delight to go back to these characters and place, so that my hope is that this will not be an isolated occurrence and that Ms. Bujold will opt to return again – even in this brief form – to what I consider her best creation.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: WRATH OF EMPIRE (Gods of Blood and Powder #2), by Brian McClellan

 

 

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

My appreciation of Brian McClellan’s storytelling started as something of a slow burn, as I read and liked Promise of Blood but did not feel greatly compelled to move forward with the series – at least not until I had the opportunity to read the first book of this new series, Sins of Empire, and found myself totally engaged with the story and characters, to the point that I went back to the Powder Mage trilogy and started retracing my steps.  Wrath of Empire is not only a worthy sequel to its predecessor, it’s also a huge game changer in the overall narrative sequence and the kind of story that consumes the reader with the sheer need to know what happens next.

Starting straight where Sins of Empire left, this second book of the Gods of Blood and Powder series takes us once again to the continent of Fatrasta, now in the throes of the Dynize invasion: as the attackers try to consolidate their hold on the capital of Landfall, they are also searching for the godstones, the powerful artifacts that will help them resurrect a god as a means of uniting their peoples once more.  Clearly they have not learned anything from the past mistakes of others….   Two of the godstones might be found at the farthest corners of the territory, so our heroes are compelled to divide their forces in the attempt of finding and possibly destroying the artifacts before the Dynize can acquire them: Vlora and her Riflejacks, together with Taniel, head north toward the secluded valleys where gold mining operations are underway, having to balance the need for speed with the secrecy surrounding their mission, which makes things all the more difficult considering the natural suspicion of the miners concerning their claims and profits.  Mad Ben Styke and the Lancers, with the addition of Ka-poel, travel in the opposite direction, constantly fighting with the encroaching Dynize army, while Ben tries to carry on his personal vendetta against the former comrades who betrayed him and sent him to the labor camps.  And lastly, Michel Bravis, former Blackhat and Taniel’s fifth column in Landfall, must remain in the occupied city trying to find one of Taniel’s informants and bring her to safety before she’s discovered.

The three separate narrative threads are interwoven with such skill that the novel quickly becomes a compulsive reading with never a moment of respite, and pervaded with a mounting sense of urgency and dread as the clues pile up and we are made privy to the invaders’ plans and witness the defenders’ apparently impossible task in the face of such odds.  At the same time we see more of Fatrasta: where Sins of Empire, with its focus on the city of Landfall, might have felt more cramped, so to speak, here our knowledge of the land and its history expands as the characters travel through it – and of course the characters are those who get the lion’s share of the narrative, taking on more facets and depth as the story goes on.

Ben Styke is the one who undergoes the greater changes: we first knew him as a mountain of a man gifted with enormous aggressive potential and the kind of physical stamina that made him appear almost invincible, more berserker than simply fearless. His interactions with Celine, the orphan child he befriended in the camps and became his ward, have changed him however, because he finds himself thinking more and more about what consequences his eventual death might have for his young ward. And that’s only the tip of the iceberg: apart from the delightful exchanges between the two of them, where the interaction of grizzled warrior and not-quite-innocent child gives way to several amusing passages, it’s Ben’s quest for vengeance on the men who betrayed him that transforms him and, more importantly, forces him to think about himself and his motivations.  There is something approaching inner pain in Ben’s musings when he considers how his past actions have shaped both his personality and his “legend”, and it’s only in the acceptance of his failings as an individual, and the acknowledgement of old age, that he gets closer to his own long-lost humanity.

The other character who gains more interesting facets is Michel Bravis, who infiltrated the Blackhats for Taniel, playing a dangerous double game in which he was forced to compartmentalize his mind to work more efficiently in his role.  Asked to remain in occupied Landfall, he’s walking on a razor’s edge as he works with his former colleagues to smuggle the families of other Blackhats out of the grasp of the Dynize, while trying to keep those same colleagues from learning that he was a traitor. This difficult balancing act is rendered even more dangerous by Taniel’s request to extract a precious informant about which Michel has very little information: forced to align himself with the Dynize, poor Michel finds his loyalties sorely tested once he realizes that not all of the invaders are bad people and that among them he can find the kind of human connection that his previous work always denied him. This is a man who had to keep to himself as much as possible so as not to blow his cover, and it’s here that we see his profound loneliness and the strong need to belong: if I found this character interesting before, it was this book that made me sympathize with him quite deeply.

Last but not least, Taniel and Vlora enjoy their own limelight as they engage in a spying mission without the support of the Riflejacks: there is something that reminded me of classic westerns as I followed their progress in the isolated mining community near the hiding place of one of the godstones, and if I still have some reservations about Taniel (he started out as a somewhat whiny young man with big daddy issues to morph into an inscrutable person with uncanny powers, who has no qualms about using others to attain his goals), I greatly enjoyed the focus on Vlora as her courage and capacity for self-sacrifice were showcased in the latter part of the story.  I might have had some complaints about the author’s treatment of female characters at the beginning of the Powder Mage trilogy, but I acknowledge that he changed course as the story unfolded and made me completely forget those early objections.

Add to all of that a few momentous revelations (and no, I’m not telling you about whom, it would be quite unfair to even hint anything!) and a final section that literally took my breath away as I feared for the survival of some of the characters, and you will understand why I used the phrase ‘consumed by the need to know’ at the beginning of this review.   The scene is all set for what promises to be a spectacular conclusion to this trilogy, one I will wait for with barely contained impatience.

Well done indeed…

 

My Rating: