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The BOOK OF NEVER box-set and Author Interview

Serialized novels are becoming more and more frequent these days, in a sort of call-back to the 19th century, when books were issued in weekly installments. Australian author Ashley Capes choose to do so with his Book of Never, and I now understand how those enthralled readers must have felt back then, as they waited to know what happened next.

Never’s story is both an adventure and a quest, and follows the journey of this intriguing character as he moves across a colorful and dangerous imaginary world in search of answers about his identity and his past, while the current civilization stands on the brink of war, a conflict that seems to be instigated by mysterious forces beyond anyone’s control.

There are many indications, along the way, that Never’s world used to host a more advanced civilization, one whose remnants are either puzzling mysteries or dangerous places, and our hero braves those dangers as he’s collecting the pieces of that puzzle to discover who and what he is and what his destiny might be. Even though I’m not a gamer, it was easy for me to see how Never’s quest resembles a game’s structure, with increasing levels of difficulty to be overcome while solving the riddles left by those fabled predecessors.

I’m therefore happy to announce that you can now enjoy the entire Book of Never sequence through the complete box-set that was recently issued, and if you want to know more about this story here are the links to my reviews of books 1 to 5.

The Amber Isle

A Forest of Eyes

The River God

The Peaks of Autumn

Imperial Towers

This event was a great opportunity for me to finally launch into an author interview, so it’s with great enthusiasm that I pass a virtual microphone to author Ashley Capes, so he can tell us more about himself and his work.

Hello Ashley, and welcome to Space and Sorcery! First things first, please tell us something about yourself.

Thanks, great to be here as a guest! Okay, I’ll try and make this at least somewhat interesting 🙂

I’m a poet, novelist and teacher from Australia – where I’ve been told the spiders are terrifyingly huge and I suppose it’s at least half true, they are pretty big. Aside from writing I love music production along with volleyball and also film. Lately I’ve been re-watching a lot of Hitchcock and 90s anime like Cowboy Bebop and Trigun.

I love travel and was once very, very lucky to actually visit Italy – it was amazing! My wife and I think about it nearly every day, mostly about how much we miss it. And not just the amazing food, about everything, right down to the scent of the stones.

Well, as an Italian, I’m thrilled that you enjoyed my country so much, and I hope you and your family will be able to visit again soon. I saw, by reading your Bone Mask trilogy, that Italy has somewhat influenced your characterization and background creation, so I’m certain that another visit will spur some more fascinating stories. And speaking of that, how did your writing career start, and what motivated it?

Like a lot of writers I started young, making my own picture books in primary school, and was lucky to have supportive teachers, parents and friends along the way. Specifically, I think it’s easiest to trace back to high school and being asked to join a band. I couldn’t sing of course (still can’t, really!) but my friends knew I wrote poetry so they thought I’d be good at lyrics. At the time, I remember being influenced by the acerbic nature of Roger Waters (Pink Floyd) but I also owe a debt to Jim Morrison for leading me to The Beat Poets.

Poetry was actually where I got my first publishing success, with several small publishers here in Australia, some years later, but it wasn’t until 2014 that I really started moving forward with my fiction. Again, I was fortunate to receive invaluable advice from my fav Australian fantasy writer, Jennifer Fallon. She helped a lot.

In terms of motivating me to write fantasy fiction I think it was in part reading The Hobbit at a young age and in part just the joy of exploration, the joy of wonder and awe. I felt those things so often when reading my favourite books, seeing my favourite films and even travelling, or walking the bush lands around my small country town. And to jump back to the Bone Mask books, I still remember seeing Amalfi clinging to the coastline, the lemon groves and the calm sea – and thinking that the same sea must have once been so ferocious on the day it swallowed the historical city.

As a long-time admirer of the works of Professor Tolkien, I can perfectly understand the fascination of stepping out of your door and looking for wonders and adventure in a setting that shares so much with fantastic literature!

Your writings, however, move across several genres: there is mainstream with a touch of magic as in THE FAIRY WREN, mystery and inexplicable occurrences in CROSSINGS and ghostly appearances in A WHISPER OF LEAVES, but your heart seems to be firmly rooted in fantasy. You recently published the third (and final?) book of the BONE MASK TRILOGY, would you tell us more about your inspiration for this story and how it came to be?

Yes, I’m a little restless in some ways – I like to try writing almost everything but can’t help adding just a little bit of magic or ‘otherworldly’ elements to my fiction 🙂

And absolutely, I tend to return to the epic/sword and sorcery fantasy stories without fail. I think it’s very immersive for me as a writer to spend time in those bigger, wider worlds. When I’m writing books like the Bone Mask Trilogy (especially the first draft of one of them) it’s almost like watching a movie – but a movie that lasts for months, and one that I’m both in control of and surprised by.

And I suspect that Greatmask (Book 3) won’t be the last time readers will see those characters – there’s a lot of story left, I think enough for a second trilogy. I hope to actually have the first book out late next year and it’s tentative title is The Last Sea God.

Wonderful news! I more than look forward to returning to that world and finding some of the answers to the many questions left unsolved: there are so many fascinating narrative threads in that story, and I for one would love to know more.

Since you mentioned restlessness, there is no one more restless than a world-roaming adventurer, like your latest character Never, from THE BOOK OF NEVER: what prompted you to publish it in serial form?

Speed mostly I think. I wanted folks to be able to read the story quicker than normal, so I wrote Never’s adventures in novella and short novel installments, so that I could release them across the duration of a single year (March 2016 – March 2017). I’d both written and had three novellas edited before I released the first one, allowing me to spread releases quite evenly over the months while working on book 4 and book 5 at the same time.

When I compare this to the three years it took to release all three parts of The Bone Mask Trilogy, I knew my readers would have to wait a much shorter time between stories when it came to The Book of Never. And while it’s true that anticipation is valuable in and of itself, I also wanted to be more ‘visible’ by having regular releases. I know that personally, when I have to wait years and years (or even only a single year sometimes) between releases from my favourite authors I tend to forget when they have a new release.

So true! And from someone who does not enjoy waiting too long, I must say that the serialized form works better, especially since Never’s adventures are – most of the times – self-contained and therefore not prone to cause reader’s frustration. Maybe with the exception of the passage between books 4 and 5, that is…

What about future projects? What can we expect in the next few months?

Sorry about the ending to book 4 there 😀

I’m hoping to release another short novel, perhaps the length of The Peaks of Autumn or maybe The Fairy Wren, by September this year. It’s a Steampunk title and it follows characters I introduced in a short story called Esmeralda, which can be found in a steampunk fairy tale anthology I’m part of.

I love the idea of steampunk because it’s a tough genre in some ways – for instance, there’s usually a historically-specific level of technology that is expected and then expanded upon, along with fantastical elements and of course the key, that ‘punk’ element – suggesting rebellion or an oppressive force needing to be resisted. It makes for great, inbuilt conflict and I really hope that The Red Hourglass will execute that feeling without losing the sense of adventure I like to put in most of my stories.

In the reasonably more distant future I’d love to write another Never story but I think The Last Sea God will be released prior, though I’m still not that far into the writing of it. Still, plenty of time left to get cracking on that one 😀

Of course, and it’s great to know that your schedule is so full, with so many planned projects: I more than look forward to what will come next. I’ve read a sample of your steampunk novel and I’m very, very intrigued, and eager to know more, since it’s happily only a few months away from publication, and the steampunk element is blended with some post-apocalyptic overtones that make for a quite promising story.

Thank you so much, Ashley for taking the time to share your work and your future plans with us. It’s been a pleasure to host you here on Space and Sorcery!

You can read all about Ashley Capes and his works at these sites: http://ashleycapes.com/ and http://www.cityofmasks.com/

Salva

Novella Review: COMING TO YOU LIVE, 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 is the last one of the collection:

COMING TO YOU LIVE

This last story in the Rise collection (and the second totally new offering) will be the most difficult to review: for technical reasons, because it develops a few years after the events in the last book of the Newsflesh trilogy, and therefore it represents a massive spoiler for all those who have not read it yet; and for emotional reasons, because finding again a few familiar “faces” was both a joy and a sorrow, since a few of them don’t exactly find themselves in a happy place – not that this surprises me, knowing their history and most of all knowing this author.

So… SPOILER WARNING: read on at your own peril!  I will do my best to remain as vague as possible, but it’s not going to be easy,

Georgia and Shaun Mason have fled from the USA, after the harrowing events described in Blackout, and are now living in the Canadian wilderness.  It should be a peaceful life (well, if you don’t take into account the occasional zombie moose or other dangers…) but unfortunately it isn’t: the Masons might be very good at fighting flesh-and-blood foes, be they living or undead, but they don’t fare as well with the ghosts haunting them.    Shaun is still battling the madness that hit him after the loss suffered at the end of Feed, and although he looks like a functioning individual on the surface, he’s quite broken inside; Georgia is the victim of recurring nightmares of her time as a prisoner of the CDC, and still has trouble adjusting to her newfound freedom – and what’s worse, her… well, peculiar nature is now affecting her physical health.  The two have no other recourse but to risk travel and reach Dr. Abbey to find out what’s affecting Georgia, and cure her, if possible: once they reach the Shady Cove lab they are joined by old friends from their blogging days – at least those who are still alive – and the journey morphs into something different…

At the beginning of the novella, author Mira Grant states clearly that this comes out of her readers’ requests to know more about the Masons, and it sounds more like a challenge than a dedication: if anyone wished for a happily ever after, they are going to be sorely disappointed because – as one of the characters states at some point – “that doesn’t happen until you’re dead”.  I was not surprised to see them still fighting for their lives, although in a different way than the past, and for this same reason I’m unable to picture them living a quiet life like most ordinary people, because in the end they are NOT: their relentless search for the truth when they were highly acclaimed bloggers brought them to face endless dangers beyond those inherent in the post-Rising world, and here Georgia and Shaun are still struggling against the odds, trying in every way possible to keep death at bay, probably because their life made them that way.

Coming to You Live offers the opportunity of seeing again some of the past players, like Mahir, Maggie and Alaric, and the welcome return of Dr. Abbey with her staff (and dog), not to mention the happily mad Foxy, gives this story the flavor of a grand finale, one where the characters I’ve come to know and care for bow out before the curtain falls: I hope this will not be my last visit to this post-apocalyptic world because – as the recently published Feedback showed – there are still many stories to be told about the Rising and its aftermath.  Given that Mira Grant is a quite prolific writer, my hope does not feel so unfounded…

My Rating:

Novella Review: ALL THE PRETTY LITTLE HORSES, 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 ALL THE PRETTY LITTLE HORSES

In the introduction to this story, Mira Grant describes it as “one of the most difficult, emotionally challenging pieces I’ve sat down to write” and I immediately understood what she meant once I started reading: in the prequel story Countdown we follow several individuals’ plight as the Kellis-Amberlee virus starts spreading, and two of them are Michael and Stacy Mason – the adoptive parents of Georgia and Shaun, the main characters of the Newsflesh trilogy.

In the last scene dedicated to the senior Masons, their small child Phillip is going near a neighbor’s dog that has been infected by a raccoon’s bite: little Phillip approaches his four-legged friend addressing it with his usual “Oggie?”, and that chilling flash is all we need to understand what is going to happen to him.

As “All the Pretty Little Horses” opens four years elapsed and the worst of the Rising has taken its course, while the world is trying to pick up the pieces and to find a way to get back on track.  Stacy Mason does not care about it all though: once the emergency was over, she asked to be punished for having killed her infected son, but when the law did not (and could not) find her guilty she fell into deep depression.   Worried about her, her husband Michael finds a way to pull her out of it by managing to attach the two of them to the army contingent tasked with exploring the Oakland Zoo: it’s while Stacy is taking pictures of the premises that Michael realizes the best way to help his wife is to put her once more in the thick of things, just as they were while they organized the Berkeley enclave to hold on until help arrived.  Stacy thrives in dangerous situations, and so Michael finds a way for them to seek those situations and document them: we can see the birth of the blogging culture that’s at the center of the Newsflesh trilogy here, and how it starts as a way to deal with emotional trauma.

The loss of a child would be emotionally devastating in any situation, but the way Stacy Mason had to face her tragedy adds several layers of pain and guilt that no rationalization is going to erase: as usual, Mira Grant lays out her characters’ souls and their suffering in what I like to call a stark, utilitarian way, and in so doing she confers to these emotions a poignancy and hurtful directness that others not always manage to achieve.   What is fascinating here is the observation of the long struggle of the world to come out of the ashes of the Rising, and the way it mirrors the equally agonizing journey of the Masons toward a new way to deal with their past and the uncertain future before them.

Where Countdown was the story of how the Rising came to be, All the Pretty Little Horses shows the aftermath of it, the birth of a new world where the dead can walk: in a way these two novellas are like the bookends for the origin story of this alternate world, while this one holds many of the seeds of the larger tale that will become the Newsflesh series.  The tapestry, for want of a better word, takes even more shape and substance and, despite the pain and loss that run among the threads, remains a fascinating story.

My Rating: 

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:  

Review: GEMINA, by Amie Kaufman & Jay Kristoff (Illuminae Files #2)

Last year I was literally swept away by Illuminae, the first volume in this trilogy: not only because of its compelling story, but also thanks to its remarkable characters, that went a long way toward changing my opinion about YA-oriented stories. Kady Grant and Ezra Mason, the two main protagonists of book 1, were depicted as normal teenagers – no whining, no pouting, no interminable complaints about the unfairness of the world – dealing with some relationship troubles until a tragic event turned their lives upside down, forcing them to mature more quickly while they desperately tried to stay alive.

When I went into Gemina I knew that this second book would follow along the same guidelines, but with different characters, and I was somewhat worried that it would feel like a rehash of the previous story, and that disappointment might lie on that road. Now I’m very happy to say that I was totally wrong. Yes, Hannah and Nik – the main characters in this new installment – are young people fighting for their lives and needing to push their individual envelopes a lot further than expected, but their journey is a different one, and their personalities refreshingly different.  But let’s proceed with order…

As the survivors of the Kerenza assault travel toward Heimdall Jumpstation, to bring evidence of the colony’s massacre and BeiTech’s involvement in it, the latter are mounting a raid that will insure the elimination of any and all witnesses to the Kerenza operation. A special incursion team is dispatched to Heimdall, taking advantage of the station’s downtime due to a holiday, and takes over, killing the higher-ranking officers, locking away the rest of the personnel and lying in wait for the Hypathia, the ship carrying the Kerenza survivors.   Only a few people manage to escape the assailants’ net: Hannah Donnelly, the station commander’s daughter; Nik Malikov, son of an influential member of the crime organization House of Knives, and Hannah’s drug dealer; Ella Malikova, Nik’s cousin, a disabled girl with an amazing knack for computers.  The three find themselves dealing not only with the assault team – and the incoming drone fleet that will obliterate Heimdall after the destruction of Hypatia – but also with the infestation of an alien life form, used by House of Knives to harvest a highly sought-after drug and running amok after the BeiTech attackers have killed the criminals handling the operation.

The only similarities between Illuminae and Gemina come from the protagonists’ need to overcome insurmountable odds, while the clock keeps ticking toward certain annihilation, and of course from the format of the story, a collection of chat transcripts, personal messages exchanged across the station’s net, Hannah’s diary excerpts and the transcripts of the station’s camera footage, complete with the dedicated technician’s comments (a very welcome relief from the drama unfolding on the pages) and the redaction of profanities.  That said, both the story and the characters are refreshingly new, and all of them managed to surprise me because they defied any expectation I might have had given the way they were initially introduced. The pace is relentless, and there are many surprises along the way that again challenge any pre-conceived idea I might have had about the evolution of the plot.

In the beginning Hannah Donnelly comes across as your typical spoiled brat, frustrated by the life she’s leading on the station and compensating by being a party girl and a supplier of drugs for her friends. Her liaison with one of her father’s junior officers seems to go in the same direction, as if she’s trying to “rock the boat” and see how far she can go. Not exactly the kind of person one would expect to come forward and try to stop the bad guys from blowing up the station, is she? And yet, when the BeiTech team storms Heimdall, Hannah sheds her flighty persona in no time at all and shows what she’s really made of, revealing unsuspected qualities, like the perfect physical form she’s maintained in the long hours spent in the gym, practicing martial arts, or the lessons in tactics and warfare that were part of her father-daughter moments with Commander Donnelly, and that allow her to keep up the dangerous cat-and-mouse game she engages with the invaders, particularly their leader, code-named Cerberus.

On first meeting Nik Malikov one might be inclined to describe him as the typical gang member: he’s cocky, arrogant, covered in tattoos that shout to the world his deeds or the times he spent in jail.  He works with his uncle, the station’s leader for the House of Knives, and helps harvesting dust – the recreational drug used on the station – from mind-drinking, snake-like alien creatures: there is a particular scene concerning this part of the HoK activities that I don’t recommend reading around mealtimes…  Yet there is more, much more than meets the eye with Nik – and what we discover about his past, along the way, helps a great deal to alter that initial image – and more importantly there is a deep capacity for both care and courage in this young man that quickly endeared him to me, long before I started to look at Hannah with equally different eyes.

Plot-wise, the dangerous, bloody game the two engage with the assault team is the main driving power of the novel: on the surface, some of the defeats suffered by the BeiTech people seem too easy, even contrived, but the authors always manage to show that either Hannah or Nik employ their experience, intelligence and craft (not to mention an intimate knowledge of the station and how it works) to put all the monkey wrenches they can think of into the invader’s gears. For their part, the BeiTech people appear quite sure of themselves, and well prepared on technical side of the operation, but their past rate of success seems to have put a dangerous cockiness into their attitude, a flaw that exposes them to the young people’s guerrilla tactics.  After a while, the operation seems to change its scope and transforms from a military raid into a conflict of wits and a fight for physical and psychological supremacy – especially true for Cerberus and his chief operative Kali, whose nickname goes well with her vengeful attitude.  In my opinion, the reason for Hannah and Nik’s successful incursions lies exactly there, in the loss by the BeiTech team of their professional focus in favor of a more personal goal.

Another interesting element comes from the growing relationship between Hannah and Nik: unlike Kady and Ezra in Illuminae they are not already a couple, and there is no attraction between them.  There is a sort of playful game going on, granted, where Nik peppers their communications with not-so-subtle innuendoes and Hannah plays to the hilt her role of arrogant snob – the one that gains her the appellatives of “Princess” or “Your Highness” from the young man – but they come from two very different walks of life and romantic attachment is indeed the last of their thoughts.  But it’s through the experience of being the only two (three, if you count Ella) free people on the station, the disillusionments they suffer (Hannah in particular) and the shared dangers that they become close, and something starts growing between them.  Even more than romance, the coming together of Hannah and Nik feels like the meeting of two people who are changing through hardship,  finding their true selves and finding a great match in the other person, once the real personality manages to shine though.

All in all, I can safely say that I enjoyed Gemina even more than its predecessor, and that this series will end up being one of my favorites, and a keeper: I have decided to buy the physical books so that I can look in detail at what I missed in the electronic form of the novels, and will do so for the third volume as well.  For someone who vowed to keep strictly to e-books for ease of use and freedom of space, this means a great deal, indeed…

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: 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: