Reviews

TO BE TAUGHT, IF FORTUNATE, by Becky Chambers

In recent times I’ve often seen my fellow bloggers write enthusiastic reviews of Becky Chambers’ novels, and curiosity drove me to add her first book, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, to my TBR, but it was a comment about this novella that compelled me to start with her latest work, both because it afforded a quick peek into this author’s writing style and because of its intriguing concept of somaforming – the adaptation of the human body to alien environments in antithesis to the change of environment, or terraforming as a means to create a suitable living space.

This initial detail is what informs the structure, the soul of the story if you want: a team of four scientists – Ariadne, Chikondi, Elena, and Jack – depart from Earth on the Merian, a long-range ship tasked with the exploration of a promising planetary system. Since the voyage will take several decades, the four explorers will go into suspended animation while in transit and during that time their bodies will undergo the necessary transformations that will allow them to survive in extreme conditions, like higher gravity or radiation exposure.  The story is told in the form of a message/diary sent by Ariadne back to Earth, and from it we learn about the overcrowding and environmental troubles in our home planet, conditions that are driving humanity to search for viable places for colonies: what’s interesting here is that such expeditions are funded by a non-profit organization based on what essentially sounds like crowdfunding, which allows for a purely scientific research free from any kind of corporate exploitation.

The tone of the novella is set by the sense of wonder coming across in the descriptions of the four planets visited by the explorers, the awe created by such diverse and astonishing landscapes: the four scientists are naturally intrigued by their findings and the discoveries they make in their travels, but they are also capable of pure joy at the alien vistas opening before their eyes. 

As an astronaut, you know conceptually that you’re going to another world, that you’re going to see alien life. You know this, and yet there is nothing that can prepare you for it.

There is also a strong sense of family uniting them as well, the unspoken but ever-present awareness that they depend on each other in this little pocket of home away from home, and the definite sense of effortlessness in the ties that have come to bind them: shared love of pure science, of course, but also the realization that their individualities contribute to the healthy whole that is the Merian’s microcosm.

Love of science – a science imbued with that sense of wonder and joy of discovery I spoke before, and therefore free from any pedantic connotation – and love of knowledge for its own sake are the underlying themes of the story and they stand at the root of the final conundrum facing the four explorers: a difficult decision that they don’t feel entitled to take on their own because it requires the support of all those who sent them into deep space to find the answers Earth needs. Just as the crew of the Merian did not travel so long with conquest or profit in mind, so they feel the need to engage their backers – or their descendants – in the next choice to be made: being so far away from home does not free them from the responsibilities and the moral obligations that have driven them so far, and so the poignant core of Ariadne’s message is “Where we go from there is up to you”, the willingness to share discoveries and goals and to invest in the hope for humanity’s future.

If this first sample of Becky Chamber’s writing is indicative of what I can expect from her longer works, I believe I will quite enjoy the full-length novels I already set my eyes on…

My Rating:

Reviews

SISTERS OF THE VAST BLACK – Lina Rather

Before I start my review I want to share the circumstances in which I came in possession of this book: a short while ago, fellow blogger Lashaan at Bookidote was celebrating his blog’s fifth anniversary with a giveaway, and I was one of the lucky winners, choosing Lina Rather’s novella as my prize. Thank you again Lashaan!

The notion of “nuns in space” might sound bizarre, or fit for some humorous tale, but Sisters of the Vast Black turned out to be a quietly emotional, introspective story able to pack a great deal of thought-provoking concepts into a short number of pages. Its immediate attraction for me came from the very peculiar ship the titular nuns travel on: a living ship, a creature offering a symbiotic partnership to its human travelers, and capable of adjusting its inner spaces to suit these companions – I felt an immediate connection with the Leviathan Moya, from the SF series Farscape, and the similarities between these two space-bound creatures helped me to feel immediately comfortable in the environment of Our Lady of Impossible Constellations, as the nuns’ ship/traveling convent was christened.

The story: in the distant future humanity has scattered all over the Solar System and beyond and is now still recovering from a brutal war between Earth Central Government and the rebellious colonies, a conflict where man-made destruction walked hand-in-hand with terrible plagues that wiped out entire settlements.  The nuns traveling aboard the Our Lady belong to the order of Saint Rita and their duties include offering medical help where required, and officiating marriages and baptisms, but more than anything else working as the connective tissue for this dispersed humanity.  

They come from widely different backgrounds, but are united by their desire to offer help and comfort to all who need them. The main figures include the Reverend Mother, an elderly woman who made a vow of silence and communicates only through hand signs; sister Faustina, tech-oriented and quite practical, who joined the convent to escape a life of  deprivations; sister Gemma, the living ship specialist who harbors a guilty secret; and sister Lucia, the group’s doctor and a person fully dedicated to helping those in need. 

The day-to-day descriptions of the nuns fulfilling their chores are interspersed with thought-provoking discussions about the nature of their ministry and the way in which theology and practical necessities can blend into new and unforeseen combinations, or the means to insure a beneficial coexistence of faith and science: these nuns have been away from “home” – i.e. Earth and the rules of government and dogma both – for a long time, and have often had to improvise when faced with situations where the old precepts did not apply. In the vastness of space the spirit of the law (or of doctrine) takes precedence on its literal application, a fact that becomes more evident with the arrival of a newly-minted priest from the Vatican, his zeal in sharp divergence with the nuns’ hands-on approach to issues.

The story takes a sharp turn toward drama once a call for help from a recently visited colony lifts the veil from the ominous new way in which the Central Government tries to re-establish its supremacy on Earth’s distant colonies: the nuns will have to decide between blindly obeying the rules of a distant entity or doing what is right, and humane – and paying the price for such a decision. There is a quiet poignancy in the description of their dilemma, and of the way it’s resolved, that I found quite moving not in spite of, but thanks to the apparently unassuming, but very compelling, way in which it’s portrayed. On hindsight, I realized that in the short space of this novella, the author had managed to draw a clear portrait of her characters and to make them come alive for me in such a way that they remained in my thoughts – almost like an afterimage – for quite some time after I closed the book.

I hope to read more from Lina Rather, because this sample of her work set her firmly on my radar, and I would welcome another look into this world.

My Rating:

Reviews

THE SIEGE OF TILPUR (Powder Mage 0.1), by Brian McClellan

 

This novella from Brian McClellan’s Powder Mage series was an unexpected surprise, because I thought I had explored them all, so as soon as I saw this title I wasted no time to acquire and read it: the end of the saga left me somewhat pining for this world, and going back to it, even for a short number of pages, felt like a treat.

This is set in the far past of Field Marshal Tamas, at the time when he was a young sergeant in the Adran army, just 19 years old but already burning with the ambition to scale the ranks despite the apparently insurmountable obstacle of being low-born and therefore having little or no chances to rise beyond a certain level.

The Adrans have been laying siege to the enemy fortress of Tilpur for a long time, sacrificing a great number of soldiers against its strong, magic-enhanced walls, and after the latest bloody charge, one that still made no dent in the enemy’s defenses, Tamas is trying to find a way to breach them without losing too many lives and at the same time putting himself in the limelight that will finally show his mettle.

This younger Tamas is as driven as the older one I encountered in Promise of Blood, but he still has to develop the deep loathing for the nobles’ privileges that will inspire his later revolution: it’s here, however, that probably for the first time his ambition clashes with the… glass ceiling of those privileges and maybe sets him on the path that will make him the man we’ll know in the trilogy.

The Siege of Tilpur is both a social commentary on Adran society at the time of Tamas’ youth and a very engrossing tale of a commando-style incursion that will keep you glued to the pages until its very end.  Very recommended for every fan of McClellan’s work.

 

My Rating:

Reviews

COME TUMBLING DOWN (Wayward Children #5), by Seanan McGuire

 

This new installment in McGuire’s Wayward Children series held the double incentive of following up on a previous story, Down Among the Sticks and Bones – one of my favorites – and I was eager to move back to the world of the Moors, its delightful Hammer Horror mood and the characters of twins Jack and Jill.

The last time we saw them, Jack was carrying back to the Moors the body of her sister Jill, that she herself had killed (not that death is exactly final there…); now the novella opens on Eleanor West’s Home and the arrival, after a lightning storm, of Alexis (one of the Moors’ dwellers) with an unconscious Jill in her arms – only it’s not exactly Jill, since there has been an exchange of bodies between the two sisters. Jack-as-Jill asks her former schoolmates to follow her to her world and help her regain her body, one of the compelling reasons for it being that otherwise the carefully maintained balance in the Moors will be thoroughly upset.

That’s as much as I feel entitled to share, since both the group’s journey and the quest’s final outcome must be explored without spoilers, so I prefer to concentrate on the story’s main components – and to get it all off my chest right away, I’m sorry to report that Come Tumbling Down ended being something of a disappointment. Don’t misunderstand me, I enjoyed reading it and I still look forward to the next novellas in the series, but in this case – not unlike what happened with Beneath the Sugar Sky – the overall result fell a little short of the mark.

The writing was as good as ever, as was the world-building, but the characterization seemed to lack the in-depth look I’ve come to expect from Seanan McGuire: as was the case with the third novella of the series, this is a choral story and this choice seems to have diluted the strength in characterization that’s typical of this author when she concentrates on one or two individuals only.

The writing style is as mesmerizing as expected, moving from weirdness to gallows humor to drama with seamless transitions, and it’s the true glue that keeps the various elements together. The further look into the world of the Moors is both fascinating and scary: we shift from the dual perspective of the main players – the vampire lord and the mad scientist – to see other parts of the realm, and learn that other kinds of monsters dwell here. The peek into the domain of the Drowned Gods and its human-inhabited village is truly horrifying and it carries some delightfully fearsome Lovecraftian vibes (Innsmouth, anyone? 🙂 ), that together with the march of resurrected skeletons at the height of the story makes for the highest point of the tale.

The core concept of identity at the root of the series is still strong: the young people at Eleanor West’s academy share a feeling of alienation with our primary world and can find fulfillment and a sense of belonging only by crossing the magical doors leading them to the various alternate worlds they inhabit for a while. Here that quest for identity gains a new layer of meaning: the body exchange perpetrated by Jill and suffered by Jack might not look like such a tragedy from the outside, since they are identical twins, but through Jack’s own words we learn that what we do with out bodies, and how much our minds form connections with them, creates unique bonds that go way beyond simple muscle memory, and whose severing causes intense trauma.

Where all of the above created a strong foundation for the story, the characters felt a little unsubstantial this time: I could not connect emotionally with any of them, not even when some truly horrifying things happened, and what’s worse I’m still puzzling over the need for the whole group to travel to the Moors, since their contribution to Jack’s “mission” was quite minimal, if any, especially during the final showdown – something that happened far too quickly and with the kind of ease that belied Jack’s passionate request for help.

The other major point of contention comes from the concept that in the Moors death is not a permanent state: we go from Frankenstein-like electrically induced revivals, to the unexpected resurrection of people who seemed to tragically lose their lives, and what it all comes down to – at least for me – is the fundamental irrelevance of any dramatic turn of events. Granted, there is always a price to be paid for a return to life (or something approaching it), but in the end it removes personal stakes or any emotional impact attached to the loss of a given character.

While somewhat frustrated by the way this much-looked-for installment turned out, I still hope that the next one will be more in keeping with the series’ overall tone and mood.

 

My Rating:

Reviews

AUBERON (an Expanse Novella), by James S.A. Corey

 

Getting a new Expanse novella while I wait for the next (and last…) book in line feels like a way of shortening that waiting time, and going back to that universe is always a joy, even when the main characters I’ve come to know and love are not part of the story.

Auberon’s time-line is set somewhere between the last two published books, Persepolis Rising and Tiamat’s Wrath, as the Laconian forces are tightening their hold on the occupied planets: governor Biryar Rittenaur and his wife Mona have been charged with the running of Auberon, one of the most Earth-like colony worlds behind the Ring gate, and like all Laconians Rittenaur is very focused on his mission, on the ideals of order and civilization that High Consul Duarte uses to advertise his merciless military conquest.

While Rittenaur and his staff expect the usual resistance – more or less overt – against what is in truth an occupation force, no matter the mask it wears, they are not ready to face the deeply rooted system of criminal corruption headed by a man named Erich whose reach into Auberon’s society goes quite far, and who is not ready to give in to the self-styled new masters of humanity. The new governor will soon discover that it’s not easy to keep faith with one’s ideals when they are in direct conflict with what he holds most dear – or as Erich tells him at some point: “Ideological purity never survives contact with the enemy.

The description of “old man” Erich, with his prosthetic arm covering for a malformed one, is a very intriguing one because it connects with a character I already encountered first in the novella The Churn (the one about Amos’ past) and then in the full novel Nemesis Games, where again Amos and Erich’s shared past came to the surface. If you read both of them, you will find that the present story gains even more depth, but even without this kind of information, Auberon remains an intriguing snippet in the overall Expanse background, because as usual the characters and their journey are at the core of it all.

What makes the two main characters in this novella interesting is that neither of them is likable, and at the same time neither of them is utterly despicable: we are made privy to their motivations, and from their point of view they are acting for the good of the people under their authority. Erich is a crime lord, and there is no measure of white-washing that can make us forget he’s a gangster ruling his territory with a blood-drenched iron fist (no pun intended here…), but he’s also fighting – in his own way and for his own purposes – against an invader bent on ruling the galaxy, so it’s difficult not to root for him, at least a little bit.  Rittenaur is the voice and arm of the conquerors, people who use other humans as guinea pigs for protomolecule alterations, people who execute their own as an example against mistakes, but he’s also a man with a deep love for integrity and a sincere belief in the good of the “Laconian dream” – he’s a decent man, very unlike Medina Station’s Governor Singh, and therefore worthy of some sympathy.

In the tried and tested tradition of the Expanse series, Auberon gives us much food for thought and sheds some interesting light on the latter part of the overall story, while we wait for the conclusion of this sweeping space opera saga that for me represents one of the best in the genre.

 

 

My Rating:

Reviews

MOONTANGLED (The Harwood Spellbook 2.5), by Stephanie Burgis

 

My thanks to Stephanie Burgis for reaching out to me and asking to read and review her latest novella in the Harwood Spellbook series: I’m always happy for any new story in this delightful saga, my only complaint being that this time it was a short one, and it ended far too soon…

The Harwood Spellbook sequence  focuses on a Regency era alternate version of Britain where history diverged from the one we know when Queen Boudicca found a way to defeat the Roman invaders by allying herself with a powerful mage who later became her husband. Since then, the political power in Angland has been wielded by women and entrusted to the body called the Boudiccate, while magic has remained the jurisdiction of men, the partnership strengthened by marriage between these two branches of society. There are always exceptions, though, and one of them is Cassandra Harwood, gifted with the ability to handle magic with great skill: in the past, Cassandra wanted to establish herself as a formidable mage, and in so doing forgot the safety limits and lost her powers, but fortunately not the competence to teach other young women, equally gifted, what she knows.

Moontangled takes place in the school where – as we learned from previous novels and novellas – Cassandra has been able, not without overcoming many social and practical obstacles, to gather the first group of young lady mages, and is now ready to present them officially to Angland’s society, to gain further backing.  There is one problem lurking in the background, however, represented by the secret engagement between Juliana Banks, one of the pupils, and Caroline Fennell, one of the most promising candidates for the Boudiccate: they are waiting for society’s recognition of women mages and for Caroline’s entry in the ruling body before making their relationship public, but recent events (explained in Thornbound, book 2 of the series) have turned Miss Fennell into something of a social outcast, and she’s ready to free Juliana from their bond to avoid tainting her future career.  What ensues is both a comedy of errors and a light-hearted romance that works very well within the magical background of Thornfell and its woodland fey dwellers.  And if I could enjoy this romantic interlude, despite my usual avoidance of the theme, you can be assured that it’s a charming one, indeed.

There are some serious themes at play here, as well, not least the emotional hardships suffered by some of these girls in the past, when they became aware of their magical abilities and had to hide or suppress them because of societal or familiar pressures – or both.  Here, at the school, they are finally free to express their full potential and to create the sense of family and belonging that so far has been denied them, as they promote the kind of change in society that can only come from inside and from example.

[…] because for the first time ever, she was surrounded by a sisterhood of women who valued her for who she truly was, flaws included.

Together with the romantic misunderstanding at the core of Moontangled, this is what makes this story a pleasure to read, creating an enjoyable balance between its… fluffier aspects and the character exploration that I’ve come to expect from Ms. Burgis’ works.  And a special mention must be made for the gorgeous cover that perfectly complements the contents and is only the latest in a series of equally beautiful illustrations for the series.

Moontangled will be available from February 3rd: it can be read as a stand-alone, of course, but if you want to enjoy the full experience, I strongly advise you to seek the other novels and novellas in the series, first – and happy reading!

 

My Rating:

Reviews

Review: THE CITY SCREAMS (An Ordshaw Novella), by Phil Williams

 

I received this book from the author in exchange for an honest review.

When Phil Williams sent me the copy of The City Screams, I hoped it would expand on the themes encountered in his previous two novels, Under Ordshaw and Blue Angel, since there are many dark corners in there that I would love to explore. What I found was instead a very different kind of story, one that however was both intriguing and fascinating: instead of investigating further the mysteries of the imaginary city of Ordshaw, here we travel to Japan, following the journey of an Ordshaw citizen, Tova Nokes, as she lands in Tokyo to undergo a revolutionary medical procedure.

Tova lost her hearing at a very young age, and although she adapted to her disability as she grew up, the offer from Mogami Industries to be part of their experimental surgery, one that will return her hearing, is too good to pass up. Moreover, aside from the opportunity to visit a different country, there is a bonus thrown in: the chance to meet Tova’s idol, the rock singer Natalie Reid – another Ordshaw citizen – and to finally be able to hear her music.

The operation does not seem to sort the desired effect, though, and all Tova is able to hear, once the new implant is activated, are anguished screams coming from all over the city – and the disembodied voice of someone called Ki, who tries to warn her about a sort of unspecified danger she must avoid at all costs. From that moment on, Tova will find herself enmeshed into a breathless adventure that looks more like an obstacle course than anything else, and it will take all her resourcefulness and strength to stay above water and keep hold of her sanity.

First things first, I just loved the Japanese setting in The City Screams: if on one side the story showed that Ordshaw is not unique in its peculiarities, on the other the alien-ness of the parallel world coexisting and interweaving with our primary one is enhanced here by the social and cultural differences of a society so dissimilar to ours, despite some of its leanings toward western mores. What’s truly intriguing here is Tova’s point of view: she is not only the proverbial stranger in a strange land, she also lacks one of her senses, which makes those new and surprising sights even more perplexing, adding to the sense of displacement she suffers once a maelstrom of weird events threatens to overwhelm her.

It’s quite easy to care for Tova as a character: despite the disability, she has managed to build herself a good life, one centered around family, work, friends – like the sisterly Ren – and boyfriend Ethan, who however does not shine for his supporting attitude.  Not unlike Pax, the central character of the other two novels in the Ordshaw series, Tova is a strong, determined person and at the same time a quite average one, but when push comes to shove she is able to unearth a reservoir of toughness and resilience that carry her over the increasing obstacles she finds on her path, starting with the anguish caused by the failure of the “miracle” implant.

Tova might not be the classic heroine, and she certainly is not the ass-kicking kind of person modern literature and movies have led us to expect, but for this very reason she feels real and relatable, an ordinary person forced to face extraordinary (and baffling!) circumstances and meeting them with admirable resourcefulness. The best moment in her growth came for me when Tova realizes that until that moment she had let others determine what she could or could not do, allowing them to put fetters on her ability to deal with life’s little and big problems – the moment when she consciously choses to walk on her road and not the one others picked for her:

 

[…]It was easier to stay in a bubble, not push it. The story of Ethan’s life. Hell, the story of her life before coming out here. After a thought, Tova casually signed, “F*** off, Ethan, I can take care of myself.”

 

What’s not to admire, indeed…  🙂

The City Screams, like its companion novels, leaves us with some unanswered questions, since the author clearly wants to keep the most important cards close to his chest for a final revelation, so this novella does feel somewhat… incomplete, especially when the real motivation for the mysterious Ki’s actions is revealed and ultimately sounds quite shallow and self-serving.  But meeting Tova is worth accepting a few more gray areas in the overall narrative, and the author’s words about finding her again in the near future – probably in the final book of the series – give me a renewed enthusiasm for this Urban Fantasy arc and its as-yet unexplored threads.

 

My Rating:

Reviews

Novella Review: SPECTRE (Book of Never #7), by Ashley Capes

 

I received this book from the author in exchange for an honest review.

It’s been some time since I read Never’s last adventure and it took me a little while to find my bearings again in this story fashioned in equal parts out of a series of adventures, in a world where magic takes strange and weird forms, and of the main character’s quest to learn about his past and the heritage from his now- extinct and legendary forefathers.  Once I did, though, the narrative flew quickly, carried by a very appealing premise.

In Spectre our hero is not facing the “simple” turmoil of warring factions bent on controlling territory, as it happened in past adventures, but rather the dire menace of a cult bent on the horrifying transformation of hapless victims – think Island of Doctor Moreau and you will have an idea of what I’m talking about.  And this time the stakes are quite high, because he needs to save a young boy from the cult’s clutches and to prevent and old… well, frenemy is the best term that comes to mind, from succumbing to the vile alteration.

As usual Never is able to find valid allies in his endeavors, and this time the person who shares this portion of his journey is an intriguing one, the unassuming priest Lakiva: not unlike a warrior monk, the young man carries on with self-effacing modesty, only to exhibit amazing abilities when necessity arises. This combination quickly endeared him to me and often brought a smile to my face.

That smile was more than necessary, because Spectre is one of the darkest adventures Never faced until now, rife with a sense of impending doom and a relentlessly ticking clock, culminating in a harrowing confrontation that blends a heated battle with an authentic descent into Hell that kept me on the edge of my seat, especially because in this case even our hero’s remarkable powers and stamina seemed to be inadequate to the task at hand.

And of course it does not end here, because a new threat looms on the horizon at the end of the novella, promising more intriguing adventures…

My Rating:

Reviews

Review: EXIT STRATEGY (The MurderBot Diaries #4), by Martha Wells

The adventures of our beloved SecUnit have come to an end – at least as far as this cycle of novellas is concerned, since a full-length novel has been announced, to the utter delight of all us MurderBot fans. So Exit Strategy does not mark the final farewell to a character that has grown in complexity and facets as the overall story progressed, but on the other hand it marks the closing of the circle, so to speak, because MurderBot moves once more into the sphere of the former clients it protected in All Systems Red, and completes the mission it had tasked itself with once it decided to turn rogue.

In the previous installment, MB had managed to collect some incriminating evidence that might enable it to uncover the deadly, illegal activities of GrayCris, and its intention was to take it to Dr. Mensah, the scientist who had seen beyond the unit’s detached façade and wanted to give it freedom and equal status. Learning however that GrayCris is fighting back on two levels – openly in court, attacking Mensah, and more stealthily by later abducting Mensa herself – it decides to launch into a rescue operation and joins with Mensah’s colleagues, offering its help and specialized skills.

The result is a breathtakingly humorous tale of a battle with the corporation’s operatives that is fought on many levels: there are a few physical engagements, granted, but most of MurderBot’s strategy is geared toward system hacking and misdirection, with a wide variety of tactics that made me often think of some of the most famous cinematic heists, like Ocean’s Eleven and its brethren, with the difference that instead of a group of skilled individuals acting in concert, here we have a lone SecUnit that has raised multitasking to an exquisite art form.

And here comes the first admission that MurderBot’s experiences have wrought important changes to its mental structure, that working and thinking “outside the box” has expanded its limits, or what it perceived as such:

[…] all this coding and working with different systems on the fly had opened up some new neural pathways and processing space.

Not only that, but its observation of humans – both in real life and through the media that MB consumes with voracity –  taught it to discern between behavioral patterns, to the point that it’s able to spot the corporation operatives as they try to pass for normal tourists in a crowded station, while their affected nonchalance is evident to the SecUnit, thanks to its studies on the body language it tried to mimic in its attempt to pass as an enhanced human.

With such awareness comes however the far more uncomfortable one about the SecUnit’s potential where feelings are concerned, something that it kept trying to deny with ever-dwindling conviction, something it has to finally deal with here and acknowledge it’s part of its own makeup, a side of its personality that has nothing to do with the programming it received but comes straight from what – and who – MurderBot is:

“It was too late for you to help them, then.” […] “But you wanted to.”

“I’m programmed to help humans.”

Eyebrow lift again. ”You’re not programmed to watch media.”

She had a point.

It’s the first, uneasy admission that it might be more than the mere assembly of organic and mechanic parts that constitute a SecUnit, and that the bothersome feelings that were the cause of much anxiety and stress in the past, and of extreme dislike when they manifested themselves, might be part and parcel of the new entity that still calls itself MurderBot, but is not anymore. The first glimmers of that reluctant acceptance can be seen when it meets with Mensah’s former colleagues and they greet it as an old friend, but the real moment of truth comes as it reunites with Mensah, the first person who saw MurderBot as a person (as uncomfortable as that was back then): in what looks like a spur-of-the-moment concession, no matter all the justifications it gives itself, the SecUnit gives Mensah permission to touch it:

I braced myself and made the ultimate sacrifice. “Uh, you can hug me if you need to.”

She started to laugh, then her face did something complicated and she hugged me. I upped the temperature in my chest and told myself it was like first aid.

It was such a delightful scene, and to me it was the first voluntary step toward the Big Unknown represented by the feelings that MurderBot had always kept away from, not out of sheer refusal, but out of fear:

I hadn’t ben afraid that she wasn’t my friend, I had been afraid that she was, and what it did to me.

With this momentous scene Exit Strategy seals the end of MurderBot’s first phase of change, one that through the first four novellas showed the slow but unavoidable development of a creature that for some reason was able to overcome its programming and moved in an unexpected direction. Now that the transformations in its outward appearance have enhanced its organic (human…) side, and that it has accepted the feelings that it started experiencing vicariously through its beloved media shows, it will be fascinating to see where Martha Wells will take it and what further surprises MurderBot has in store for us.

And I can’t wait…

 

 

My Rating:

Reviews

Novella Review: THORNBOUND (The Harwood Spellbook #2), by Stephanie Burgis

 

I received this novella from the author, in exchange for an honest review, and I was thrilled to be able to go back to Ms. Burgis’ new series combining alternate history with magic.

Stephanie Burgis’ digression from the historical fiction of her previous novels (Masks and Shadows and Congress of Secrets) into “pure” fantasy is proving to be just as intriguing as her other works: the alternate Regency England – here called Angland – introduced with Snowspelled is further developed here and gains new facets and a deeper look into the characters, while offering a fast-paced and engrossing story that offers some gloomier, more intriguing shades to the established background.

Present-day Angland is the result of the successful war waged by Queen Boudicca against the Roman invaders, whom she was able to drive away thanks to the alliance with her magician husband, thus setting the mold for a society in which women hold the political power and men exercise their magic abilities for the good of the country, a situation that has endured for centuries.  That is, until Cassandra Harwood, daughter of one of the most influential members of the Boudiccate, chose to forgo a political career on the path traced by her mother in favor of the practice of magic in which she excelled, causing significant ripples in the established status quo.

When we met Cassandra in Snowspelled, we learned that the desire to prove her worth had caused a grievous accident that almost claimed her life and left her unable to cast any spell, and at the end of that story she had found new purpose in the foundation of a magic school for the teaching of other young women who wanted to cast off the shackles imposed by society as she had done.

As Thornboud starts, the school at Thornfell, the Harwoods’ ancestral home, is about to open, the first nine pupils have just arrived, and the Boudiccate has sent a surprise inspection team to assess the school and the teaching program.  Cassandra has indeed her hands full, having to deal with the preparations, the inspectors and her problems with the staff, not to mention that she is plagued by horrible nightmares and suffers the absence of her newly-wed husband, who has been called away on Boudiccate business on the very same day of their wedding. As if all of the above were not enough, strange occurrences and a dismal discovery seem to point toward a malicious plot to cause the school’s failure…

Thornbound’s overall tone is slightly darker than that of its predecessor and I found that it fit well with Cassandra’s problems and more importantly with the doubts about her ability to fulfill her dream, not to mention the anguish she feels in realizing that her choices might have seriously impaired both her sister in law’s and her husband’s prospects for their future careers. It’s a very subdued Cassandra that I found at the beginning of this story, and I felt for her, but was overjoyed to see her rise to the challenge and summon her inner strength to overcome the trials in front of her.

Still, the major pleasure in this novella comes from the theme of mutual support and the bond it can create between people, especially women: in this tale of intriguing role reversal, women appear still hampered by social conventions and unable to express their full potential, any attempt they make to break out of the mold harshly criticized by their peers when it’s not the object of scandal and shunning. It’s a very actual theme that for all of its placement into a fantasy Regency background can however resonate with our modern sensibilities, as does the other important and equally modern subject about balancing one’s own career aspiration with the needs and requirements of marriage and family.

All these elements are set into a compelling story – a real page-turner, to use an expression typical of back-cover blurbs – where magic and everyday practicality blend into a seamless and highly entertaining whole.  I hope that many more of these novellas will come forth in the future, because they are truly a delightful read.

Highly recommended.

 

 

My Rating: