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Novella Review: PLEASE DO NOT TAUNT THE OCTOPUS, by Mira Grant (from RISE: A Newsflesh Collection)

After I finished reading Mira Grant’s last  volume in her Newsflesh trilogy about the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse, I wanted to know more about the changed world resulting from the rising of the dead, and discovered some of the short stories she wrote to… fill in the corners of her post-apocalyptic world.

When the author announced she was going to publish a book that would gather all this material and a few new stories, I knew I had to read it: Mira Grant (the alter ego of UF writer Seanan McGuire) is an amazing storyteller and I was looking forward to more about this dystopian version of our world, either revisiting the older stories or enjoying the new ones.

This week is the turn of: PLEASE DO NOT TAUNT THE OCTOPUS

This novella marks the return of a great secondary figure from the Newsflesh trilogy, Dr. Shannon Abbey, a rogue virologist who keeps experimenting in search of a cure for the Kellis-Amberlee virus outside of the CDC-established parameters.  Abbey is a wonderful character, brash, hard-nosed and harshly practical: she describes herself as an “annoyed scientist” as opposed to the “mad scientist” label pinned on her by detractors, and she works out of semi-clandestine labs that she must abandon, from time to time, due to security reasons. This has taught her the hard lesson of cutting your losses and starting again, and shares this attitude with her closest assistants, the ones that have stayed with her the longest and constitute the core of her little outlaw family.

The story is somewhat light-hearted in comparison with other offerings in the Rise collection, and even though it’s not a humorous tale by a long shot, it’s also a welcome respite from the more dramatic presentations in this anthology. In short, Shannon Abbey is continuing her work after the breakthrough offered by a chance discovery following Shaun Mason’s visit to the lab with his team, and she rules over her little domain with firmness and a few well-placed dramatics (like the use of her huge dog Joe, a formidable deterrent if there ever was one). One day Dr. Abbey finds, in the woods surrounding the lab, a badly malnourished woman on the verge of collapse and she takes her inside, only to discover that her guest is part of a trap devised by a neighbor, the same ruler of the little underground kingdom we see in Feedback, ex-military turned despot Clive. He’s not the only connection to Mira Grant’s previous work, since in the course of the story we find out the real identity of the woman Abbey brought inside, someone we met in the novella The Day the Dead Came to Show and Tell, and this discovery leads to an exploration of post-traumatic stress and the ways to cope with dramatic loss.

The best feature of Please Do Not Taunt the Octopus, however, remains Dr. Abbey: I quite liked her in Deadline and Blackout, but here she is both point of view and narrating voice – and what a voice she has, indeed.  Sarcastic and pragmatic, she also feels deeply for the people entrusted to her authority and the creatures in the lab – the scenes with the titular octopus are among the best, and helped me a great deal in metabolizing the dread and sadness that hit me after revisiting The Last Stand of the California Browncoats.  There is a good measure of pain and loss in Dr. Abbey’s past, and the small flashbacks help us understand how she came to be the person she is now, but the main emotion that information prompts is not so much pity as admiration for her strength and her willingness to fight back: that’s why I ‘m not surprised to learn that she is one of the author’s favorite characters.  She is now also mine, as well.

My Rating: 

Novella Review: SAN DIEGO 2014 – THE LAST STAND OF THE CALIFORNIA BROWNCOATS, by Mira Grant (from RISE: A Newsflesh Collection)

After I finished reading Mira Grant’s last  volume in her Newsflesh trilogy about the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse, I wanted to know more about the changed world resulting from the rising of the dead, and discovered some of the short stories she wrote to… fill in the corners of her post-apocalyptic world.

When the author announced she was going to publish a book that would gather all this material and a few new stories, I knew I had to read it: Mira Grant (the alter ego of UF writer Seanan McGuire) is an amazing storyteller and I was looking forward to more about this dystopian version of our world, either revisiting the older stories or enjoying the new ones.

This week is the turn of SAN DIEGO 2014: THE LAST STAND OF THE CALIFORNIA BROWNCOATS

This is the most terrifying and at the same time the most poignant of the stories about the Rising, and if anything it was more difficult to bear on re-reading than it was the first time – not because I already knew what was going to happen, but because knowing that, I was able to focus on other details, the ones where human frailty and courage took center stage.

Here Mira Grant imagines what would happen at the start of the zombie apocalypse in a place as crowded as a sci-fi convention (in the specific case, San Diego’s Comic Con), and she aptly terms it “the perfect recipe for chaos”.  The title takes inspiration from a very real group of people, the California Browncoats (from the delightful, unfortunate tv show Firefly), a non-profit organization that promotes charity fundraising at Comic-Con.  My own sole experience of a sci-fi convention – and a very small one at that – helped me visualize the scenes in this story, and that made it even more harrowing…   

In the summer of 2014, when the Kellis-Amberlee virus starts running rampant, killing people and bringing back the dead, all seems normal for the people attending the annual Comic Con convention in San Diego: little do they know that hell will break loose and in a matter of hours the convention center will transform into a slaughterhouse.  This story runs on two time tracks, one following the events at the convention as they happen, and one from 30 years in the future, when Mahir Gowda (a welcome return from the Newsflesh trilogy) interviews the only survivor of the carnage.  It’s mostly a story of ordinary people forced to face extraordinary events and doing their best to cope with a situation no one would ever have imagined, and there are acts of true heroism standing side by side with the inevitable terror and panic following on the heels of the outbreak.

It’s a very powerful account, one that employs with great success the image of a huge, enclosed space plunged in semi-darkness, where the living and the undead move among the stalls – some of them transformed into makeshift barricades – in a sort of modern transposition of Dante’s Inferno. The story does not only mark the beginning of the end for the world as we know it, but also underlines the loss of the most precious commodity humanity can enjoy: innocence.  In Mira Grant’s own words: “We are incapable of imagining a return to a world where we could abandon all care and spend a week living in a fantasy.”

I don’t believe I will be able to ever attend any convention without thinking about this story….

My Rating: 

Review: LUNA: WOLF MOON, by Ian McDonald (Luna #2)

“We fight and we die up there; we build and we destroy, we love and we hate and live lives of passion beyond your comprehension and not one of you down here cares.”   (Lucas Corta)

One of my most awaited titles for this year was the sequel to the amazing Luna: New Moon by Ian McDonald, that for me had represented a double discovery – a great story and a new-to-me author who captured my imagination with his representation of a complex and merciless society established on the Moon.  When Luna: Wolf Moon came out I did now waste any time in acquiring and reading it, and indeed it was worth the year-long wait. For those who plan on reading it, this review is as spoiler-free as humanly possible…

The colony established on Earth’s Moon has thrived and expanded, in the span of a few decades, into a microcosm society ruled by the Five Dragons, the families who have created their own resources-based empires: the Mackenzies mine the surface in search of rare metals; the Suns deal with software and technology; the Asamoahs are the food growers; the Vorontsovs run the transport systems; and the late-comers Cortas extract the precious Helium3 that keeps the lights running on Earth.  These five families have been at each other’s throats – albeit in a subtle and apparently civilized way – since forever, despite the intermarriages that should have cemented a sort of truce and instead only managed to fuel rivalries and hatred, yet for some time the status quo prevailed until the Mackenzies decided to take matters into their own hands and brutally attacked the Cortas in order to erase them from the face of the Moon.

And so the first book ended, in a mass slaughter that made Martin’s infamous Red Wedding appear like a church picnic, and Luna: Wolf Moon opens some eighteen months later: the few surviving Cortas have either gone into hiding or adopted a very low profile, while the Mackenzies have taken over their rivals’ business and destroyed their enclave, Joao de Deus, in a ruthless tabula rasa operation that speaks volumes about the conquerors’ determination of sending their adversaries into oblivion.  Yet the Cortas are not truly finished because Lucas, one of the surviving heirs of matriarch Adriana, decides to undergo the grueling and potentially lethal training that will allow him to travel to Earth, where he intends to collect the necessary resources and allies to effect a comeback and vanquish the Mackenzies.  And as an added point of interest, the latter are not exactly enjoying their victory, because an inner war for power has started…

To say that I totally relished my return to McDonald’s Moon would be a massive understatement: there is so much in this story to hold my attention – apart from the plot about which I will say no more, because it must be appreciated on its own: the social structure created on the Moon is a fascinating exercise in imagination, as is the frame of mind of the people who have made their home there; and then there are the characters, the majority of which are not people one can easily admire, but are still so fascinating that they kept me glued to the pages not in spite of their shortcomings, but because of them.   The society on Luna seems divided into two neat halves, those who wield power and have the means to live comfortably, and those who work for them and are seemingly locked in a precarious situation, subject to the whims and moods of the Dragons and their families.  There appears to be no middle class as we intend it, and that’s somewhat puzzling – unless the author chose not to mention these people because they were not functional to the economy of the story…

The civilization that grew up on the Moon as the small settlements expanded is a very peculiar one, not exactly lawless (even though the strongest usually prey on the most vulnerable and no one ever raises their voice to object), but rather… anarchic, for want of a better word: you could say that it was the environment that made the rules, not its dwellers, and since Luna is the proverbial harsh mistress, weakness cannot be tolerated there, not in a place whose very nature is focused on killing you with cold, lack of air and water, or unshielded radiation.  Luna is one giant factory geared toward the production of energy and precious materials, where law and fairness have no place or, as one character says at some point:

We’re not a nation state, we’re not a democracy robbed of the oxygen of freedom. We’re a commercial entity. We’re an industrial outpost. We turn a profit. All that’s happened is a change of management. And the new management needs to get the money flowing again.

If the characters are not exactly sympathetic, one cannot avoid feeling invested in their journey, be it one of discovery of oneself, like it happens with Wagner Corta, the man who feels the influence of the waxing and waning Earth as a werewolf of legend felt that of the Moon; or one of vengeance, like the true descent into hell of Lucas Corta, who braves the crushing gravity of his mother’s planet of origin to find the means to restore his family’s power – and there lies one of the best features of the book, the terse descriptions of Lucas’ brutal training and the nightmarish torture of living under six times one’s weight, sustained only by the iron will that’s part of his family’s heritage.

Ian McDonald’s writing is economical, almost stark at times, with no concession to flowery descriptions, and yet it manages to depict the savage, terrifying beauty of the lunar surface, or the most shocking of circumstances with effective clarity, to place his readers right there where events are occurring, and to see them clearly with their minds’ eye.  Lucas Corta’s fight with gravity that I mentioned above is indeed a case in point, the man’s agony portrayed with a cinematic quality that at the same time makes you physically share in the pain he undergoes, all this underlined by a parallel description of the music he listens to as a form of distraction and support, the staccato delivery of the narrative in perfect sync with the music’s rhythm.

And if the writing is outstanding, the story itself is compelling: it jumps from character to character, from location to location, in a perpetual motion that leaves you no time to catch your breath, much like the lunar version of the parkour runners defying injury and death even in the reduced gravity of the Moon. It’s a story told by many voices, examined from different perspectives, and in the end it makes it clear that it’s much bigger than the sum of its parts.  And speaking of ends, this book should have been the second in a duology, and in fact there’s no indication it will be followed by others, but there are too many evolving threads, too many open issues still on the table, that I don’t want to consider the possibility this will be the last time I’ll visit this world.

Please, Mr. McDonald… can we have another book – or more?

My Rating:  

Novella Review: EVERGLADES, by Mira Grant (from RISE: A Newsflesh Collection)

After I finished reading Mira Grant’s last  volume in her Newsflesh trilogy about the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse, I wanted to know more about the changed world resulting from the rising of the dead, and discovered some of the short stories she wrote to… fill in the corners of her post-apocalyptic world.

When the author announced she was going to publish a book that would gather all this material and a few new stories, I knew I had to read it: Mira Grant (the alter ego of UF writer Seanan McGuire) is an amazing storyteller and I was looking forward to more about this dystopian version of our world, either revisiting the older stories or enjoying the new ones.

This week I will explore

EVERGLADES

Short and brutal and sad: these are the words that best describe this story, one of those that are new to me.  Each of these short tales comes with an introduction by Mira Grant, a way to set it in the bigger picture if you want – and I find these just as fascinating as the stories themselves.  In here, the author delves into the mindset of those people facing the end of the world as they know it and choosing to be “a statistic”, one of the “soft costs” of a dramatic chain of events.

Everglades is set in the early days of the Rising, in a California campus besieged by the walking dead and seen through the eyes of Debbie, one of the students attending summer semester.  The harsh reality of the zombie apocalypse alternates with Debbie’s recollection of one perfect summer in Florida, visiting her grandparents and going on an excursion in the Everglades with her grandfather.  The man had taken Debbie to the swamp, showing her that what looked like logs in the waters were, in truth, alligators lying in wait:

“Always remember that Nature can be cruel, little girl,”said Grandpa.  “Sometimes it’s what looks most harmless that hurts you the most.”

Debbie is remembering that lesson now, as the number of survivors in the campus keeps dwindling alongside their hopes of rescue: knowing, as we readers know, that salvation will not come, not in the chaotic days of the Rising, it’s not difficult to understand these people’s mindset, the uneasy mix of hope and despair, of doubt and terror.  When she realizes that the alligators, like other predators out there, are more tailored for survival than human beings, that intelligence and progress and science can amount to nothing in the face of the unspeakable horror that is being visited upon the world.

These stories are not easy to read – the subject matter sees to that in no uncertain way – but at the same time they show the whole range of human emotions, of strength and frailties, that can be seen in exceptional circumstance: and Mira Grant truly excels in depicting those in her deceptively plain, but powerful, way.

My Rating: 

DUSK OR DARK OR DAWN OR DAY by Seanan McGuire

Seanan McGuire is not only one my favorite authors, she is a natural-born storyteller – and that might be the very reason I enjoy her powerful writing so much. This is her second novel I’ve read that deals with ghosts (the first being Sparrow Hill Road), and although there is no connection between the two stories – except for the presence of ghosts, of course – the tie binding them together is the way McGuire handles the emotions connected to death and the afterlife.  The stark directness of her descriptions, the lack of any concession to morbid thoughts or easy sentimentality, make this story compelling and its characters unforgettable.

Ghosts are created when people die before their allotted life-span, so that they still move among the living – often in deceptively corporeal form, enough to be undistinguishable from the rest of humanity – until they have reached the amount of years pre-programmed, so to speak, into their existence: ghosts possess the ability to take time from the living, so prolonging an individual’s permanence on the Earth and at the same time shortening the giving ghost’s stay in limbo; they can also give time back, though, as a form of punishment for those who are deemed undeserving.

This intriguing premise has a negative side, though: witches (yes, there are witches moving among us, and some of them are bad) can trap ghosts inside mirrors and use them as a veritable fountain of youth, either for themselves or for anyone willing to pay for the chance of many more healthy, vigorous years. Even being dead does not free one from the dangers of human greed, it would seem…

Jenna is a ghost: once a small-town girl, she literally ran to her death shortly after her beloved sister Patty’s funeral.  Patty had moved to New York in search of a better life and, like many other disillusioned young women before her, choose suicide as a way of escape from her broken dreams.  Once dead, Jenna did not meet again with Patty – who, in all probability, was fated to die when she did – so she’s now going on as a ghost, working as a part-time waitress and as a volunteer at a suicide help line, where she earns time by helping people at the end of their endurance.   Decades of this routine almost-existence are profoundly shaken when it becomes clear that all ghosts in New York have disappeared, and Jenna decides to take action, shaking herself out of her unconscious complacency and finally facing her own… well, ghosts.

The actual plot at the core of this novel felt less important, to me, than the intriguing ideas and characters that supported it, starting with the whole concept of ghosts as indentured workers needing to serve their whole time before being set free: life is somehow compared to a form of duty one needs to fulfill before being allowed to move on.  That felt like one of the strongest arguments against suicide I remember reading, one that feels both right on its own merit and devastatingly clear in its simplicity.   Indeed Jenna, who still mourns the loss of her sister Patty, understands how her own accidental death squandered her potential, so that she feels the need to earn every single minute of time she gains, and more often than not chooses to donate it to someone in need.

Jenna is an intriguing character, because all throughout the story she appears somewhat detached from it all – not because she is a ghost among the living, but because it seems that she’s trying to protect herself from feeling too much: the loss of Patty, of the strongest emotional bond she had while living, left her apparently unable to form any meaningful connection with other people, either living or dead. It would be easy to classify her as cold and aloof, if it were not for the small group of friends she has gathered around her, the real mirrors of her personality: fellow ghost Delia, the landlady of the building Jenna lives in, a sort of mother figure for both living and dead in the community; corn-witch Brenda, the guitar-playing manager of the coffee shop Jenna visits regularly; or homeless Sophie, her muttered ramblings a cover for something deeper.  All of these equally fascinating characters show us who the real Jenna is by reacting to her with care and sympathy, making us understand that there is more to Jenna than meets the eye, even if she is the one telling the story and therefore being something of an unreliable narrator, up to a point.

What ultimately Dusk or Dark or Dawn or Day is, is a contemplation of life an death, of the meaning of both, and the way we face them.  There is a quote that showcases what I most appreciate in this author:

Statistically, women are more likely to go for poisons than men are. We don’t like to leave a mess. We spend our whole lives learning how to be… how to be as neat and tidy and unobtrusive as possible, and then we go out the same way.

No preaching, no lengthy sermons, but a simply effective bluntness that’s one of McGuire’s landmarks and the reason I’ve become such a staunch fan in a relatively short time.  This might not be one of the “happiest” stories you might find, but it’s one that will make you think, and that’s always a plus in my book.

My Rating:


Novella Review: COUNTDOWN, by Mira Grant (from RISE: A Newsflesh Collection)

After I finished reading Mira Grant’s last  volume in her Newsflesh trilogy about the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse, I wanted to know more about the changed world resulting from the rising of the dead, and discovered two short stories that acted as a prequel to the events described in Feed: one was Countdown – the story of how two independent viral researches combined into the infection that caused the dead to rise; and the other was San Diego 2014: The Last Stand of the California Browncoats – a look on the first few days of the outbreak from the point of view of the participants to a sci-fi convention.

With time, these two stories were joined by a couple of novellas, How Green This Land, How Blue This Sea – set in a post-outbreak Australia, and The Day the Dead Came to Show and Tell – a tale of the post-Rising world focused on a group of school children and their teachers.

When the author announced she was going to publish a book that would gather all this material and a few new stories, I knew I had to read it: Mira Grant (the alter ego of UF writer Seanan McGuire) is an amazing storyteller and I was looking forward to more about this dystopian version of our world, either revisiting the older stories I did not review at the time, or enjoying the new ones.

COUNTDOWN

Countdown is indeed the tale about how it all began, how the seeds for the end of the world as we know it were sown, marrying human desire to cure both big and small ailments and the equally human stupidity of acting without thinking about consequences.

In Denver, Colorado, Dr. Wells is satisfactorily progressing with his experimental cure for cancer that uses a mutated strain of the Marburg virus to attack cancer cells and truly give a second lease on life to his patients. He’s checking in on one of his youngest patients, 18-year old Amanda Amberlee, who’s looking forward to her prom night and finally enjoying the freedom of simply being alive.

In Reston, Virginia, Dr. Alexander Kellis is conducting experiments on monkeys and guinea pigs with his miracle cure for the common cold: it might not look as ground-breaking as his colleague’s research into cancer, but alleviating even something as banal as a cold would greatly improve mankind’s living conditions.

In New York, journalist Robert Stalnaker writes an inflaming editorial concerning Dr. Kellis’ work, claiming that the cure will be available only to people with means, and calls the scientist’s efforts a “money scam”, reveling in the huge response – both positive and negative – the article receives.

And finally in Allentown, Pennsylvania, Brandon Majors, “self-proclaimed savior of mankind” decides to start a crusade that will result in the destruction of Dr. Kellis’ lab, the dispersal of his as yet not-fully-tested cure in the atmosphere, and its interaction with the Marburg-Amberlee cancer-fighting strain.

Countdown does not only lay the basis for the zombie apocalypse and its aftermath, but also shows the failure of institutions and media in keeping the public informed about what is really happening, in a last-ditch effort of containing the inevitable by burying everyone’s heads under the sand.  This is the point from which independent bloggers will take up the slack and fill the niche left vacant by more traditional information channels: one of the more interesting narrative threads concerns indeed Georgia and Shaun Mason’s adoptive parents, both teachers at the time of the Rising – they are pictured as normal people having to face extraordinary circumstances, showing the first glimmers of what they will become in the immediate future.

There is a sense of inevitable doom hanging over this story, of an unstoppable chain of events that will lead to an explosive climax, and knowing beforehand what’s going to happen only enhances the power of this tale of how the Rising came to be.

My Rating:


Review: FEEDBACK by Mira Grant (Newsflesh #4)

22359662It might sound strange when I say I’m very happy to be back in Mira Grant’s Newsflesh series, since it depicts a terrifying post-apocalyptic world following a zombie plague, but this author’s powerful, intense narrative always manages to draw me in, enthrall me and make me care and worry for her characters, so that every new installment in this saga is a highly anticipated and very welcome occasion.

A little background: some twenty years before the events at the core of this story, the dead started to rise. There is a well-thought out and scientifically-oriented reason for this: two independent studies were underway to find a cure for cancer (using a mutated strain of the Marburg virus) and the common cold. When both organisms were accidentally released, they combined into the Kellis-Amberlee virus, able to amplify its victims, i.e. transforming them into zombies, and since everyone on the planet was infected, even death by natural causes could bring amplification. Once the worst of the Rising is over, humanity finds itself in the grip of terror, forced to undergo blood tests before entering any enclosed space and to go through decontamination every time they are exposed to a live form of the virus, like blood or other bodily fluids.    The failure of the traditional media in reporting the facts of the Rising results in the emergence of bloggers as the most trusted form of information, and bloggers are indeed the protagonists of the Newsflesh series.

While the first trilogy (Feed, Deadline and Blackout) focuses on the Masons, a brother-sister team of bloggers, Feedback moves its sights toward a different team, although the story parallels –  both in content and in time-frame – the events of the first book in the series, with the bloggers following the last stages of the presidential campaign alongside a candidate’s entourage.   This might sound like the rehashing of an old plot, but it’s not, not by a long shot – and I must warn you that while this book can be read on its own, it contains spoilers for the first volume in the original trilogy.  Feedback complements the first three novels, and adds new insights and information, not unlike what happens when you observe a scene from different angles: since this is above all a story, or series of stories, about news people and the search for information and truth, no perspective can be deemed as superfluous or repetitive.

Aislinn “Ash” North is an Irwin, which in the post-Rising blogging community means the kind of journalist who goes out in the wild, facing the dangers of the undead to give her audience a sense of what the world outside is about.  She’s married to Ben Ross, the Newsie, the team’s writer of more serious, more thoughtful content: it was a marriage of convenience, since it helped Aislinn escape her native Ireland’s oppressive society, but it’s still based on a strong sense of companionship and respect, while their opposing approaches to news content keep the blog fresh and interesting. The other members of the group are Audrey Wen, the Fictional, who writes serialized stories, and Matt Newson, the tech-person who also publishes makeup tutorials.  They are a diverse and well-integrated group and while not at the top of the blogging pyramid like the Masons, they enjoy a good audience and hope to expand: this opportunity comes when they are enrolled by Democratic candidate, governor Susan Killburn, to report on her run toward the White House.  It will soon become clear that there are darker undercurrents in this presidential campaign and the team will discover, to their horror and loss, that the puppet masters are very powerful and will stop at nothing to bring their plans to completion.

What differentiates Feedback from its predecessors is the outward-directed focus on the post-Rising world: readers of the original trilogy will be already aware of the changes in life style, the need for constant blood tests, the bleach showers to remove any trace of contaminants, and so on. These elements are present here as well, but they take second place to a deeper investigation of the changes the Rising brought to society and people’s mind-sets.  Fear is the most powerful drive of the times, and with reason, since the threat of amplification always lurks around the corner, changing the way people must deal with everyday errands, the same ones we face without thinking about it, like entering an underground parking, or a supermarket, or boarding a flight.  So there are those who capitalize on that, as Ash notes at some point, with her irrepressible cheeky wit:

Fear wasn’t just an American pastime: it was a global addiction, and industries of every size existed to satiate it. Some of them were obvious, like the blood tests shoved in front of our faces at every possible turn […]

It’s a theme that was present in the previous books but takes center stage here, because that fear is shown as a useful tool – a lesson we need to be reminded of in these times when fear is used far too often in the same way. The fictional future and our present are therefore linked by this element that is also a commentary on the direction our society seems to be headed toward. As usual, Grant never preaches to her audience, but simply lets her characters’ dialogue connect the story to present-day issues, like a snippet of conversation about one of the candidates, a man who prefers to live in a secluded enclave, away from any contact with the rest of the world:

“The pre-Rising generation thinks of him as a visionary.”

“Everyone else thinks of him as a throwback,” said Rick. “He’s too reactionary, he’s too insular, he wants to build a wall across the Canadian and Mexican border. A wall. As if the damn fences in Texas and Arizona didn’t get people killed during the Rising.”

Considering that Feedback was published at the beginning of October 2016, the above quote takes a very special meaning, indeed.

Apart from these considerations, what I most enjoyed in Feedback are the characters: the group of protagonists here feels more approachable than the Masons were in the original trilogy, they appear more… human, for want of a better word.  The Newsflesh bloggers are all consummate professionals doing their jobs, granted, but Aislinn & Co. feel more in touch with the world, more interested in people than in the exploration of facts and the search for truth. It’s for this reason, I imagine, that Grant showed us more of the outside world in this novel: besides the cities and the convention centers, that featured in the first three books as well, we see some off-the-map communities on both sides of the spectrum, from the survivalists who want to keep away from the dangers of civilization, to mad Clive’s little domain ruled with intimidation and terror. We also see more interaction between blogger teams, and get a perception of what their community is like, how they view each other, be it with professional respect or envy and antagonism.  If I liked the Masons as protagonists, and cared for what happened to them, I grew deeply fond of Ash, Ben, Audrey and Mat – they felt more substantial, more flesh-and blood and less legend, if I’m making any sense. I found the reason for such a difference in a consideration by Aislinn herself:

[…] We’d never considered that letting ourselves be killed might be the answer. It wasn’t worth it. Maybe the Masons would think it was, but the Masons were zealots. They’d been born to the news and if they died making it, they wouldn’t think their lives had been wasted. I didn’t want that. I wanted to live  […]  and not become a footnote for the sake of a story than had never really been mine and had never been meant to be.

People, and what makes them tick, especially in the midst of a zombie apocalypse, are the reason for the continued success of this series, one that draws its horror from the darkness of the human mind rather than from the hordes of flesh-eating undead, that are just background “decoration” here, rather than the main props. Witnessing the cold-blooded exploitation, from those in power, of citizens’ frantic need for security is far more chilling than seeing senseless murders gleefully perpetrated with a barbed-wire-clad bat (yes, TWD, I’m looking right at you!) and it’s far more effective than any given quantity of blood and gore.

As long as Mira Grant (the alter ego for UF writer Seanan McGuire) will keep delivering these meaningful stories of the post-Rising world, I will be looking forward to learning more.

My Rating:


Review: MINIATURES – The Very Short Fiction of John Scalzi

31258177If short stories can sometimes be a difficult medium, because the compressed space they must be worked in often leaves the reader unsatisfied with the way characters and narrative are developed, this collection of very short works from John Scalzi enjoys a different track record: the humorous nature of these stories lends itself quite easily to brevity and they feel more like well-developed jokes than anything else, or like some of the witty posts with which the author delights his blog’s readers.

So here you will find, for example, a mock interview with a very peeved Pluto, whose demotion from the status of planet still burns deeply, despite the abysmal cold in the fringes of our Solar System: the annoyed ex-planet takes this opportunity to vent some of its displeasure toward some old and new adversaries, the scientific community at large and – quite inexplicably – Phil Collins. Just to give you an idea of the tone of these stories, here is a quote directly from the ex-planet:

[…] people start calling me and telling me I’m the newest planet. And I remember saying, I don’t know if I want that responsibility. And they said, well, you can’t not be a planet now, Walt Disney’s already named a character after you.  That’s really what made a planet. Not the astronomers, but that cartoon dog.

Or we can read the advertisement for a very special travel agency that can send its customers into alternate universes, offering various possible scenarios about a certain event: the example used is the death of Adolf Hitler, and despite the far-from-palatable subject, Mr. Scalzi manages to make you laugh out loud with his vision of alternate futures.  My favorite is the one where the time-frame alteration keeps sending the city of Vienna back and back into the past, transforming it into a battleground for competing armies, until

[…] when the time traveling pro-Magyar forces show up, they are slaughtered by everyone else which is tired of all this time-traveling crap, thereby ending the causality loop.

Or again we are treated to a collection of hilariously crazy tweets the author posted to ease his boredom during a long flight, imagining the assault on the plane’s wing operated by a gremlin bent on plunging the vehicle down to earth.  If you don’t think this could be funny (especially in the case of people who are not comfortable with flight), reading this brief piece will make you change your mind.

Each story is prefaced by a few words about its inception and history, and all of them are accompanied by little drawings that complement the story to perfection.  If you want to spend a couple of light-hearted hours in the company of a favorite author, or if you want to discover John Scalzi’s peculiar brand of humor, this is the perfect place to start.

My Rating:


Review: TOWER OF THORNS, by Juliet Marillier (Blackthorn & Grim #2)

22567177Tackling the second book in a series can be a tricky business when the first one happened to be an amazing read: I’m often afraid that the “magic” will not be there with the same strength as it was in that first, remarkable read, so that I tend to postpone my approach to the next volume. Well, I should not have done that with Juliet Marillier’s Blackthorn and Grim, because this second book is even better than the first – and consider that Dreamer’s Pool was already an incredible find.

Tower of Thorns starts some time after the events of Dreamer’s Pool, showing how wise woman Blackthorn and her companion Grim seem to be quite settled in their life at Winterfalls: despite Blackthorn’s prickly character and Grim’s broody silence, the two have integrated well into their life in Prince Oran’s household, finding a modicum of peace, although the ghosts of their respective pasts still haunt them.  This quite fragile equilibrium is unbalanced by the move of the Prince’s retinue to the king’s palace, due to a temporary absence of the sovereign: leaving what the two have come to think of as their safe place is not easy, but the advanced pregnancy of Lady Flidais, the Prince’s wife, compels Blackthorn to insure her presence – and it’s clear that, despite her grumblings, the healer has developed a strong attachment to the community she lives in, while Grim has gone even beyond that.

Neither of them has much time to adapt to their new surroundings when two things happen that upset once more the status quo: Lady Geileis, the ruler of a nearby land, comes asking for help against a creature that has taken residence in an abandoned tower, its day-long wails upsetting both the people’s  spirits and the health of crops and cattle; and Flannan, an old friend of Blackthorn and a wandering scholar, makes his appearance, stirring up old ghosts and the healer’s never mastered need for vengeance.  Blackthorn’s acceptance of Lady Geileis appeal for help – the monster’s curse might be lifted by a wise woman – is simply the means to leave the court and explore the possibility of following Flannan south and connecting with a net of rebels bent on exposing Mathuin’s wrongdoings and finally bringing him to justice.

This story is told in what I have come to envision as expanding concentric circles, each new one adding some more information to the plot, and this is particularly true with the mystery of Geileis and her wailing monster, imprisoned in a tower protected by an impenetrable barrier of thorns. The flashbacks to what appears to be a classic fairy story offer more and more information about the terrible curse weighing on Geileis’ land, and her own part in it: it’s a fascinating tale, one that provides some much-needed clues to what basically is a very mysterious character, one who appears from the start to have an hidden agenda, and the will to bring her plans to fruition, no matter the cost.  As I learned the details of her past, I was caught between pity and dislike: on one side Geileis is a tragic figure, considering the heavy curse hanging over her domain, with a tower-bound monster howling all day long throughout the summer, its cries dredging the saddest thoughts from the listeners’ minds and sometimes bringing them to extreme acts, even affecting the cattle and the crops.  On the other, there is a core of ruthlessness in her that renders her uncaring of any consequences might be visited on those who choose to help her: the glimpses we see of the younger Geileis made me think that probably she never grew out of her teenage selfishness, so that her plight did not touch me as deeply as it should probably have.

Despite being at the core of the inciting incident for this story, Geileis is far less central to its economy than Blackthorn and Grim, especially the latter who – in my opinion – often takes the center stage here, while part of his past his revealed.   Blackthorn is a woman caught between two powerful forces: the need to see justice done for the wrongs Mathuin visited on her and other helpless victims, and the equally strong need to keep true to her pact with the fae Conmael. The arrival of Flannan makes the latter’s pull less strong, and day by day her need to throw caution to the four winds becomes more compelling, tempered only by the curiosity toward the riddle she wants to solve and – even more important – her loyalty toward Grim.  The relationship between Blackthorn and Grim keeps being the beating heart of this series, and here, where it’s sorely tested, it shines even more brightly: should she decide to follow Flannan south, toward vengeance, she knows she has to deceive Grim in order to keep him from following her toward what Blackthorn believes will be a sure death, and this causes her great anguish because complete honesty lies at the root of their relationship, one forged not on romantic attachment but on the kind of trust that only family can engender.

For his part, Grim perceives the distance that has come between himself and Blackthorn and while he can only guess at its reasons – and is hurt by it – he refuses to forsake the role of protector, confidant and friend that he needs to exercise just as much as Blackthorn knows she needs it herself. To say that my heart went out to him in these circumstances would be a massive understatement, especially when observing other people’s dismissive reaction to his silences and his oh-so-deceptive simple-mindedness, that under its surface hides a keen mind and a deep capacity for selflessness.  Whatever compassion I might have felt toward Grim’s character, however, went several steps further once the massive disclosure about his past came to the fore: it’s a huge, earth-shattering revelation that completely upends any theory I had about his background and shines a very different light on his personality, and his soul.  Tower of Thorns is very much Grim’s story more than anyone else’s, and the pages where we learn about the events that destroyed his past and shaped him into the man he is are among the very best of the novel, the intensity of feelings described with a sort of lucid compassion that is nothing short of breath-taking.

In Tower of Thorns both Blackthorn and Grim appear to have mastered some of the ghosts from their past, or at very least to have come to more comfortable terms with them, and even though it’s clear they still have a long road before them, it’s also clear they know – with the absolute certainty they had not reached until now – they can totally depend on one another, that despite their flaws they can count on each other for support, and strength.

There’s an intensity of feeling in Blackthorn and Grim’s relationship that touched my heart in such a deep way I have not experienced in a long time: to me this is the mark of stellar writing.  With the first book I discovered an amazing author, but with this second I have become a staunch fan.

My Rating:


Review: REVENGER, by Alastair Reynolds

28962452If someone had told me that I would not be able to finish a book by Alastair Reynolds, I would never have believed them: he’s one of my favorite SF authors, and I’ve always enjoyed what I read so far, so when I learned of this new novel I dived straight for it, only to be profoundly disappointed.

The story focuses on two sisters, Adrana and Arafura, and is told from Arafura’s point of view: they leave their home on Mazarile to join a crew of glorified scavengers searching through the relics of old civilizations for valuable objects.  There are many interesting details to this view of the universe: humanity has spread away from Earth (there are several mentions of the Old Sun and its failure) and created artificial homes on planets and habitats; the remnants of previous civilizations are to be found enclosed in baubles, that open at pre-arranged times to allow the treasure hunters to look for artifacts; there is a form of instantaneous communication/listening device that uses a sort of huge (alien?) skull to establish contact, or to eavesdrop, but only if the operators are young people, with a still-developing brain; and there are pirates, preying on the scavenger crews to get at the artifacts without doing the hard work.

Most of the above is often mentioned in passing, but never satisfactorily explored, especially on the subject of the baubles and how they came to be: I’m not in favor of massive info-dumps, on the contrary, but it seems… wasteful to give the readers a glimpse of something so intriguing, and never to offer enough information to make sense of it all.  I believe the roots of the problem lie with Arafura’s point of view, and for a variety of reasons: for starters, she knows little of the universe she lives in, and that makes sense up to a point, because of her secluded life on Mazarile. Yet, once she escapes the stifling confines of her life, she shows little interest in the “big picture” out there, accepting with irritating passivity the information provided by her crew-mates, without looking further than that: there is nothing of the hungry curiosity I would have expected from a teenager who is for the first time free of the constraints of her former existence, none of the wonder of being “out there” and living an adventure.  If I were to distill the sisters’ reactions to the new and intriguing vistas opening before them, I could do it with: “oh, um… yeah, ok”.

Even worse is the “voice” of the two young girls: their dialogue and inner thoughts sound… dumbed down, for want of a better word.  If this is meant to be Alastair Reynolds’ attempt at expanding into YA fiction, I find it more than inadequate: used as I am to his neat, incisive prose, what I found in Revenger was a writing style so careless that I often wondered if I was truly reading such a well-known author. And if Arafura’s very simplified expressive range is the means to reach out to the younger audiences this seems to be intended to, I find it somewhat insulting, because readers in this age target are much more articulate than that.

Another problem I encountered with this book was the inciting incident for the whole story: the decision of the two girls to leave their planet comes out of the blue, after a visit to a sort of carnival booth in which some lady happens to have a device that measures the ability to read bones, a very sought-after skill for a treasure-hunting crew.  Forgetting for a moment the presence of such a device outside of a lab, or the fact it’s in the hands of a charlatan, the ease with which the two – and Arafura in particular, since she seems the less flighty of the pair – choose to abandon their home and their father sounds contrived and far too convenient, just like their immediate recruitment by Captain Rackamore of the ship Monetta’s Mourn. In what looks like a matter of hours, the sisters are out in space, ready for a remunerative job that might help the family’s flagging finances, without a single apparent qualm about what and who they leave behind, or what kind of dangers they might face on the scavenger ship.  Moreover I want to reserve a special mention to a scene in which the carnival lady’s helper wrecks the girl’s guardian robot Paladin to keep it from interfering with the examination: it looks ludicrous, absurd, excessive and totally out of context with the rest of the story.  If it was meant as comic relief, I’m afraid it failed completely.

Faced with these difficulties, I would not have hesitated to abandon this book much earlier, had it been written by a less-respected author, so I struggled on, ignoring my own law about never reading something that feels like work rather than pleasure: still, the story remained un-engaging and after a while even the attempts at inserting peculiar words to show the changes in everyday language (“lungstuff” for air or oxygen; “lamps” for eyes; “coves” for persons, and so forth) became an irritant rather than background information.  When tragedy hit the crew of Monetta’s Mourn, with the assault by the pirate ship led by Bosa Sennen, I hoped that something would change, that I would see some strong reaction from Arafura, but once again my hopes were dashed: the girl’s lack of substantial emotional responses strengthened my impression of a cardboard character with no depth at all, one I could not be invested in.  Having lost what little interest I had gathered for the story up to that point, I gave up the struggle a little before the halfway mark.

What most troubled me with Revenger was that the potential for the story was there, but it remained untapped and was instead buried under uninspired writing and poor characterization.  Not at all what I’m used to from a Reynolds book.

My Rating: