Reviews

Review: STRANGE DOGS (an Expanse novella), by James S.A. Corey

I received this novella from Orbit Books, in exchange for an honest review.

A confession first: when I saw this title among the monthly proposals from Orbit, I immediately clicked on the NetGalley link, without even checking first what the theme would be, or which character it might focus on.  For me it was more than enough that the story would be centered on the Expanse’s universe, one of the best (it not THE best) space opera series currently running. The rest would take care of itself… And it did, indeed: even though none of the familiar “faces” is present in this novella, the story is totally absorbing and my only complaint is that it ended too soon, leaving me with a lot of questions that I hope will be answered in the next full-length book(s).

Laconia is one of the worlds opened to colonization by the alien portal whose creation we saw in Abaddon’s Gate, and young Cara arrived there as an infant together with her parents; her brother Xan was born on Laconia and both of them don’t know any other life but that of their new home, Earth being more like a fairy-tale than an actual place.  Cara’s life is divided between school lessons, domestic chores and the times she spends near the pond at some distance from her home, where she observes the strange flora and fauna of her home world.  And Laconia looks indeed like a wondrous place: the descriptions of Cara’s surroundings create an image of a beautiful, alien world full of possibilities, a place devoid of grave dangers and just perfect for a young person’s imagination to run free.

Not everything is idyllic in this new world, though: the presence of soldiers, who landed on Laconia in the aftermath of the brutal attack on Earth from Nemesis Games, has placed a veil of unease on the settlers and at times Cara intercepts some conversations between her parents that make her wonder about the seriousness of their tone, and the half-understood sentences she is able to catch. Still, she does not delve too deeply on that, preferring to spend her time observing the animals that visit her pond: the weirdest encounter happens when she sees for the first time a group of peculiar dog analogues, creatures that seem possessed of a superior intelligence and that fire her curiosity and imagination, especially when they seem able to do the impossible.

I’m sorry I can’t be more specific, but to do so would be to spoil the whole story, particularly because at some point tragedy strikes and the dogs – the Strange Dogs – will prove pivotal in the upheaval of Cara’s life and the hard choices she will feel compelled to make.  Also, the fact that rogue Martian admiral Duarte is mentioned, and since he’s very likely the one who stole the protomolecule sample Fred Johnson was safekeeping, this detail lays a very uneasy feeling on the whole scenario, especially where the dogs and their peculiar abilities are concerned…

What I can safely share is how well-rounded Cara appears, despite the short length of the story, how she feels both very young and very mature at the same time, and how she is able to maintain a sort of… lucid innocence – for want of a better word – despite the harrowing events developing in her world.

There are so many narrative threads in this short story, and they are quite tantalizing because the authors just touch on each subject, moving swiftly to another one and so on, and that’s the reason I felt both intrigued and frustrated while reading the novella: my hope is that this might be a sample of what we will find in the next installments of the series, branching off in what promises to be a new and exciting direction, as it has done with every single book.  All the same, this was a very, very welcome “appetizer” while the wait for Persepolis Rising goes on…

 

My Rating: 

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Reviews

Review: SNOWSPELLED, by Stephanie Burgis

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

The two novels penned by Stephanie Burgis that I previously read – Masks and Shadows and Congress of Secrets – were both delightful finds, creating a very successful mix between historical events and magic-driven fantasy: not only were they enjoyable books, but they compelled me to search for more information on the history of the times chosen as background, so that I was able to learn details that were previously unknown to me, which is always a plus from my point of view.

You can therefore imagine how thrilled I was when Ms. Burgis contacted me to read and review the first of a series of novellas titled The Harwood Spellbook, set in an alternate Regency England, one where magic is quite commonplace.  This historical period is one I enjoy reading about, since it brings back fond memories of the times I shared Georgette Heyer’s books with my mother, and the premise for Ms. Burgis’ setting sounded quite fascinating, so I did not waste any time in accepting.

England – here named Angland – is a country where humans, elves, trolls and other creatures coexist more or less in peace, mostly through treaties stipulated after the bloody wars of the past. The country is ruled by women through the Boudiccate (so named after Queen Boudicca, who in this alternate history did manage to overcome the Roman invaders), while men are tasked with the exercise of magic, relinquishing every political power to their wives, mothers, sisters and so on.  The most amusing aspect of this social background comes from the overturned customs: men seem more inclined to gossip and trivial pursuits, while women deal with the responsibilities of government and the rule of the land.

Cassandra Harwood is a rule-breaker: to the chagrin of her mother, one of the Boudiccate’s more powerful members, she was never interested in politics, preferring to explore her potential for magic and therefore going against every social convention of the country. Her drive brought her to be accepted in the Great Library, the male academy teaching the finer points of magic, where she distinguished herself and where she met Wexham, a magician of equally strong powers and ultimately her fiancé.  As the story starts, however, Cassandra is recovering from the effects of a spell she should never have tried alone, and as a consequence she is forbidden to practice any kind of magic: to do so would mean courting death.

Cassandra feels her life is all but over, and hardly tolerates the sympathy of friends and family members, seeing in it a veiled reproach for the unconventional life choices of the past: for this reason she has broken her engagement with Wexham and is not looking forward to meeting him again at the formal reception in the Cosgrave estate, where the pacts with the Elf kingdom will be renewed. Other concerns will however claim Cassandra’s attention – among them an unseasonable and strangely intense snowfall that all but forces the guests to stay indoors – and she will be compelled to fight for her freedom without the help of the magic that until recently was her second nature.

I read the story in one sitting, unable to let go of the charming atmosphere depicted by the author, one where a subtle vein of humor runs throughout the pages thanks to the upside-down social customs of this alternate version of Regency England. The verbal skirmishes, the strict adherence to conventions, the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle…) snubs exercised by the guests, all the details I expected from interactions based on this historical period were there, but artfully shifted to encompass the differences created by the premise. Here are two delightful examples:

It was a truth universally acknowledged that women were the more pragmatic sex; that was why we were expected to run the government, while the men attended to the more mystical and imaginative realm of magic.

The gentlemen, of course, were expected to remain at the table, until a maid was sent to notify them that it was safe for them to join us in the parlor, meaning that the political conversations were officially finished for the night.

Cassandra is a very enjoyable heroine, stubborn enough to want to pursue her own goals in spite of conventions, but still prone to the weaknesses of the heart, whose existence she outwardly denies only to be constantly reminded – with loving humor – by her brother and sister-in-law, two other characters I liked from the very start.  And she can also be courageously strong when the time comes to face dangers or the creepy (oh, so creepy!) Elf lord who challenges her.

As a beginning to a new series, Snowspelled is a very promising one and also a departure from what this author’s previous novels led me to expect, a change of pace that I found totally enjoyable: where Masks and Shadows and Congress of Secrets held a darker core to their background, here the tone is lighter, more a divertissment than anything else, the kind of story that can take my mind off more serious concerns and leave me with the definite sense of having breathed some fresh, invigorating air.  Something we all sorely need now and then…

I certainly will look forward to more adventures from Cassandra & friends.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Novella Review: HOPE’S END (Powder Mage #4), by Brian McClellan

Another prequel story from Brian McClellan’s Powder Mage world: this one does not focus on Tamas directly, but rather sees him through the eyes of his subordinates, in particular Captain Verundish, a field officer.  At the beginning of the story Verundish is contemplating suicide: a letter she received from her philandering husband requests she divorce him, so he will be able to marry his mistress. Since it might be difficult for Verundish to grant him a divorce, or rather impossible, since her father – a minister of the faith – married them and he’s opposed to the idea of breaking a sacred bond, she should kill herself to free him – otherwise he will sell their daughter into slavery.  With this kind of threat hanging over the child, Verundish has every intention of ending her life to save her daughter, but the appearance of Captain Constaire – a fellow office and her lover – forces he to postpone her plan.

Constaire has been chosen to lead a “Hope’s End” attack against the stronghold of Darjah, a Gurlish city besieged by the Adran army, under the command of General Tamas: this kind of attack, as the name suggests, is nothing but a suicide mission to breach the wall and open the way to the bulk of the army, and the man wonders whether Tamas wants him dead, since Constaire is noble-born, and everyone knows that Tamas is not fond of people buying their army commissions rather than earning them in the field.   Her lover’s plight gives however Verundish an idea to solve her problem: if she were to lead the attack, and die in the battle, she will be a hero and her daughter would be safe forever…

With this story I realized something, that with Brian McClellan it’s easy, very easy, to grow fond of characters in a very short time, and Verundish is a case in point: a woman who is a capable warrior and at the same time a victim of circumstances and – probably – of warped customs.  If society allows her to enlist in the army and actively participate in campaigns, on the other hand it leaves her at the mercy of a vile husband who would be allowed to sell their own offspring to slavers: there is something twisted, and horribly wrong at work here, something that made me like her instantly as she battled with her options with lucid despair.  Moreover, her lover Constaire appears something of a whiner, and his attitude toward the orders he just received made me wonder if, with them, Tamas wanted exactly to “test his mettle”, and if he had just failed the test…

Through Verundish’s eyes we see Tamas not just as a character in the story, but as the man his soldiers know: a stern, uncompromising man who still has a few axes to grind against society, although he’s very aware of his own shortcomings, especially when he sees them mirrored in others: “Sometimes I envy those men who don’t let pride cloud their judgment”.  The more I get to understand him better, the more I’m eager to retrace my steps in the series and sees how the main story develops.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Novella Review: RAT CATCHER, by Seanan McGuire

Seanan McGuire’s  October Daye novels are by far my favorite UF series, both for the fascinating juxtaposition of the fae realms with our own world and for the amazing characters moving through both. And if protagonist October is a joy to read as her journey continues through the series, there are some other characters I’ve come to deeply care about, the foremost being Tybalt, King of Cats.  So imagine my delighted surprise when, scanning the stories on offer at LightSpeed Magazine, I came across this one, where Tybalt is the absolute star: the opportunity to learn more about him and his past is not one to be passed by, indeed. Because, you know… TYBALT!   🙂

So here it is:

 

RAT CATCHER, by Seanan McGuire

(click on the link above to read the story)

 

It’s the Year of the Lord 1666 in London, and Rand – the one who will later be known as Tybalt – is summoned by his father, the King of Cats, to attend a convocation at the Fae court of Londinium, to hear some important news. In fact, it will turn out to be a prophecy by the Roane, who have foreseen the burning of the city (the great fire that ravaged London in the September of that year) and urge the fae of Londinium to leave the place, or risk perishing in the flames.    Rand’s father Ainmire, though, is not willing to listen – mostly because he feels that the Court of Cats unattended might undermine his power, a power he holds on to not through wisdom and strength, but with ferocious, stubborn cruelty: as a King of Cats, he rules through fear and intimidation, and does not care about the consequences that might befell his subjects.

This story, besides showing the kind of person Tybalt used to be, helps us understand the kind of King (and person) he is in present times, and how his strength as a King of Cats comes from the respect he earned from his people: this younger version of Tybalt is something of a dreamer, someone who enjoys watching acting troupes perform the works of Shakespeare, someone who feels an affinity for humans that will carry on though the centuries and inform his attitude toward mortals and changelings alike.  One of the best moments of the story is the one where he bids goodbye – in cat form – to those actors, who have somehow adopted him as the theater’s resident feline: there is a depth of feeling in there that says a great deal about how Rand/Tybalt sees his life as a prince in the Court of Cats: “these men, who had never exchanged a word with me and knew nothing of my place or station . . . these men were some of the truest friends I had ever known.”

Another fascinating element is Rand’s growing confidence with the Shadow Roads, the dark, cold spaces between worlds that act as shortcuts for longer distances: in the series, we see Tybalt as a master of these dangerous by-ways, but it was not always so, and here he struggles with his lack of knowledge and resistance, sometimes coming within an inch of his life before reaching a destination, that more often than not is purely random. There is an interesting observation he makes at some point that again says a great deal about the individual he will become: “for the first time, the shadows did not fight me. I had faced them without fear, fought through them to a chosen destination, and now, at last, they conceded my authority”.

This is a beautiful, if cruel, story and one of the best (if not THE best) I’ve read among the corner-filling tales in the October Daye universe: for that alone it’s worth reading, but it takes a special value if you are a Tybalt fan – and in my experience, every reader of this series is a Tybalt fan….

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Novella Review: SERVANT OF THE CROWN, by Brian McClellan (Powder Mage 0.2)

As the main character in the Powder Mages trilogy, Field Marshal Tamas comes across immediately as a strong, intriguing figure, and not just because of his connection to this peculiar brand of magic.  Finding more about his past, and what made him the person we meet for the first time in Promise of Blood, is a fascinating journey: we saw a glimpse of him at the end of the first novella I reviewed, Forsworn, but here he takes center stage in a story that dovetails nicely with that first prequel and happens shortly after those events.

Young Captain Tamas is a commoner who rose in the army’s ranks through courageous feats in battle and dogged determination, but his road has not been an easy one: in the realm of Adro, military prowess is not enough for a man to overcome his origins, and Tamas finds himself having to defend his honor (or rather deal with the huge chip on his shoulder…) through duels.  The latest one, where he nicked a nobleman son’s earlobe as a gesture of contempt, has frozen his appointment to major and is heading him straight toward a board of inquiry, where his career hopes might be dashed forever.    While he tries to clear his name, he finds himself enmeshed in the struggle between the King and the Privileged cabal, whose thirst for power has the ruler of Adro more than willing to play a dangerous game with Tamas as the main pawn.  The only positive side of the whole situation comes from Tamas’ meeting with Erika ja Leora, and the relationship that slowly builds between these two practitioners of powder magic, the seasoned soldier and the young, headstrong noblewoman.

The best part of their encounter – apart from the verbal skirmishes and the personality clashes – comes from Tamas’ reluctant acknowledgment that not all nobles are arrogant, self-centered creatures who enjoy looking down on him and making him the object of their scorn, but that there are people who care about others and value them for what they are.   Erika’s selflessness in the rescue of Norrine, makes Tamas realize that this young woman might have lost everything – including her life – to save a virtual stranger, and he feels diminished by her gallantry, when he understands that “he battled primarily for his own gain and honor”, while Erika had far higher goals in mind.   For her part, Erika comes across as a strong personality, one graced with both courage and an impish sense of humor – not to mention an aptitude for ruthlessness when necessary – that slowly but surely breach the seasoned soldier’s armor and move him away from his self-imposed grimness, and loneliness.

The more I learn about this world, the more I’m fascinated by it and feel compelled to explore it at length: Brian McClellan is quickly becoming one of my favorite authors, and I berate myself for having waited so long before finally learning more about his works.  But I’m getting there…

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

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: 

Reviews

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: