Reviews

Review: THE SKIN TRADE, by G.R.R. Martin

 

Reading, or in this case re-reading, the stories contained in the two-volume collection Dreamsongs always reminds me that G.R.R. Martin can speak in many voices, not just that of epic fantasy: The Skin Trade, a long novella or short novel depending on the point of view, is a perfect example of Martin’s wide variety of styles, mixing in this case both horror and urban fantasy in a story that’s quite compelling.

Willie Flambeaux is a collection agent, an unremarkable kind of guy saddled with asthma and a paunch, but he suddenly finds himself at the center of dreadful events as his friends are being murdered in the most savage way – as if mauled by an animal. He asks his friend Randi Wade, a private investigator, to look into the matter, even though he knows this will raise some dark ghosts from her past: twenty years before Randi’s father, a police officer, was killed by some kind of animal, so the official report went, an animal that was uncannily able to withstand being shot with the entire load of Wade Senior’s gun, and disappear.

As the two of them try to make sense of the evidence in the recent murder spree, and to overcome what looks like blindness or lack of interest from the police, we learn that Willie is a werewolf – or, as he prefers to say, a lycanthrope, and that there is a good number of these creatures in the city.  What’s even more alarming is that the victims of the ghastly murders were lycanthropes themselves, and that therefore – as the pack leader and unofficial city owner Jonathan Harmon warns Willie – there is someone or something that is hunting the hunters.

One of the most fascinating sides of this story, aside from its fast, compelling pace, is the new outlook adopted for the werewolf myth: the transformation is not dependent on the moon, as the werewolves can change at whim, and that in the shifted form they are more powerful, have more stamina and can overcome any physical problem present in their human aspect.  For example, Willie’s asthma disappears completely when he becomes a wolf, and his friend Joan – the first victim – though paralyzed as a human, was able to move and run when she changed.   Still, the lycanthropes are sensitive to silver, and that detail will prove very important in the course of the story…

Another element I enjoyed is the banter between Randi and Willie, who have known each other for a long time and despite their differences have managed to build a friendship that’s based on mutual respect and trust, even though it’s hidden under Randi’s verbal barbs and Willie’s futile but still enthusiastic attempts at seducing the investigator.  There is a slow buildup and an equally slow reveal about the creature that is killing werewolves all over the city, and the last part of the story is a breathless rush that will keep you turning the pages compulsively.

And on a side note, you can also appreciate this novella in audio format, where Randi Wade is played by Australian actress Claudia Black (a.k.a. Farscape’s Aeryn Sun), an experience I wholeheartedly recommend.

Advertisements
Reviews

Review: ARTIFICIAL CONDITION (The Murderbot Diaries #2), by Martha Wells

 

The theme of rogue A.I.s is one of the classics of science fiction, and most of the times – if not always – the rogue goes on a rampage, killing humans with gleeful abandon, or its cybernetic equivalent. And even though this unescapable trope, in a delightful meta reference, fills much of the serialized fiction Murderbot so enjoys, this is not the case with our Sec Unit character: yes, it has gone rogue after being liberated by the humans it saved in All Systems Red, but the reason for the escape lies in its desire to better understand its nature and to explore the roots of the incident in which it allegedly killed the people it was entrusted to protect.

Artificial Condition sees a further step in Murderbot’s evolution: where the first installment was all about gaining some measure of freedom from the centralized control, a feat made possible by the Sec Unit’s hack of its governor module so that Murderbot could enjoy its favorite soap operas when not actively engaged in a task, now the outlaw construct wants to learn what truly happened in that fateful mission in which it might have turned against its human charges – Murderbot possesses few information about it due to the system wipe sustained after the incident, but it’s determined to go to the roots of the matter and learn what it can.

Thanks to a few exterior modifications that might make it pass as an augmented human, Murderbot hops between systems hacking the software of unmanned transports, so as to leave no traces, but it finally finds its match in ART, the evolved A.I. of a science shuttle: ART (an acronym created by Murderbot on the basis of its perceived attitude, and whose meaning you should discover for yourselves 🙂 ) quickly bonds with Murderbot through a shared enjoyment of its favorite serials, Sanctuary Moon and Worldhoppers, and soon becomes invested in the Sec Unit’s search for the truth, helping it blend more successfully with humans and giving it pointers on the best ways to avoid standing out in a crowd.

The sarcastic, often scornful conversations between the two A.I.s are indeed the best part of this novella, with ART somehow being Professor Higgins to Murderbot’s Eliza Doolittle thanks to its more experienced worldview and badly hidden sense of superiority, which irks the Sec Unit to no end.  It’s also fascinating to observe their different opinions about humans: where ART is clearly fond of them, as testified by its rapid attachment to the serials’ characters and its profound distress when something bad happens to them in the course of the saga, Murderbot is more wary of them and tries to have as little to do with them as it can, even though I still maintain it’s a self-imposed distance, because once it takes a cover job to more easily access a space station, it shows – again – a deep commitment to its charges, one that in my opinion goes well beyond any kind of programming as a Sec Unit.

But they were clients. Even after I’d hacked my governor module, I’d found it impossible to abandon clients I hadn’t chosen. I’m made my agreement with these clients as a free agent. I couldn’t leave.

The fact that Murderbot loves to lose itself in fictional series portraying humans shows its deep – if unconscious – fascination with them, something that goes beyond the need to interact with them, something that seems connected to the organic components of the construct and is in constant strife with the artificial parts: there is a sentence that I found quite enlightening and that to me showed clearly that conflict, one that I still wonder if it’s typical of all Sec Units or just of this particular Sec Unit – when Murderbot undergoes further modifications to better pass as an augmented human, it looks at its new self and realizes that the changes were very effective, and that it finds it difficult to accept them because “it would make it harder to me to pretend not to be a person”.

Murderbot’s struggle with its identity goes hand in hand with the difficult, painstaking search for clues about the incident that caused its system wipe, and the two threads seem to be interconnected, because discovering what really happened might offer important clues about why Murderbot is different from other Sec Units, and ultimately what led to its decision to hack the governor module – a device we already saw could be used offensively and not just as control software.  Given what Murderbot discovers on the space station, and the events portrayed in All Systems Red, it’s not hard to imagine some kind of far-reaching conspiracy whose goal is still nebulous – and I’ve been wondering time and again if the governor module hack was not a way for Murderbot to distance itself from it all, even though the A.I. gives completely different, more mundane reasons for it, which is hardly surprising considering the inner dissembling it is often prone to.

The jury is still out on this detail, though, and hopefully we’ll learn more in the next installments of this series that is turning out to be both intriguing and delightfully amusing. My hope is also that ART might reappear at some later date, because I loved it for its snarky sense of humor and its wonderful interactions with Murderbot.

Thankfully, the wait for the next novella is not long…

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Novella Review: OF THINGS UNKNOWN, by Seanan McGuire

At the back of The Brightest Fell, the eleventh volume in Seanan McGuire’s October Daye series, I found a welcome surprise, a novella set in the same world and tied to the events of the second book, A Local Habitation.  Even though the finer details of that story had become slightly fuzzy with the passage of time, I found myself remembering it all thanks to the author’s dropped hints that brought it all back in no time at all.

The protagonist here is April O’Leary, a very unusual kind of fae: she used to be a Dryad, a tree-dweller, and she had come to be adopted by January O’Leary, the Countess of Tamed Lightning, an equally unusual knowe for fae standards, one where magic and computer technology could exist side by side, enhancing each other in new and peculiar ways.  At the end of A Local Habitation, the death of January had left April as the heir to Tamed Lightning, and as caretaker for the people whose mental/spiritual/whatever energy had been drained from their bodies and electronically stored into a server.

Now, a few years after the facts, a way has been found to restore those people’s vitality to their bodies, through a ritual that, not uncommonly for Tamed Lightning, is part computer programming and part magic, and will require October Daye’s contribution to work.  The only victim not to be restored will be January, April’s adoptive mother, because her body was damaged beyond repair, and both April and January’s widow Li Quin struggle to come to terms with this, while rejoicing for the possibility of bringing back their long-lost friends.

While April and Li Quin battle with their still-fresh grief and the uncertainties about the future, April makes a mind-boggling discovery…

I enjoyed this story quite a bit, both because it represented a sort of… soft exit from October Daye’s world after the end of The Brightest Fell, one of the most intense novels of the series, and also because it explored April’s character with some added depth: she is quite fascinating, because she is not exactly alive, being a virtual creature who exists in the data streams of Tamed Lightning’s computer banks.  It was the only way for her to survive, after the death of her tree, and this kind of existence has changed April’s outlook in a dramatic way: she thinks like a software, she looks at the world and at people as if they were programs, or strings of code, and this colors both her thought processes and the way she understand people – or tries to.

There is a delightfully fascinating consideration about Toby that showcases April’s way of looking at things and people:

Sir October Daye is a knight errant of the realm. She is an irregular command in the code, a roving antivirus entering compromised systems and repairing what she can before moving on to the next crisis.

I loved it, because it was not only a way to understand what makes April tick, but it also felt so very fitting for October and the way she is. And now the wait for our favorite changeling’s next adventures goes on…

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Novella Review: ACADIE, by Dave Hutchinson

Dave Hutchinson is more widely known for his dystopian Fractured Europe series, whose first book I tried some time ago but did not finish: it was a good, interesting concept, that much I could see, but there was an underlying feeling of… sadness, for want of a better word, that ultimately drove me away from that story. My curiosity remains, however, and I don’t rule out the possibility of returning to the series at another time and maybe with a different frame of mind.

Meanwhile, I wanted to try something different from this author so that when I saw this novella mentioned I knew the different premise and genre might be what I needed, so I took the plunge: Acadie is a short but intriguing story that piqued my interest from page one to the – quite unexpected – end.  The central character is Duke (or rather John Wayne Faraday, the nickname being one of the many tongue-in-cheek jokes scattered throughout the narrative), formerly a lawyer with the Bureau of Colonization that he left after a callous incident he publicly denounced.  Adrift and without a job, Duke is contacted by an agent of the Colony, a remote conglomeration of artificial habitats created by Isobel Potter, a genetic scientist who fled Earth when her extreme experiments on human genome made her an outlaw.  After 500 years away from the mother planet and the Bureau, Potter and her acolytes have created a society where extreme modifications are the norm and freedom of choice is the law: Duke has been elected President for the simple reason that he doesn’t want the job, and that’s where the real story starts, as a probe from Earth manages to slip through the Colony’s defense systems and threatens to expose the location of Potter and her people.

The overall tone of the story is light and humorous, mostly because of the apparent happy-go-lucky attitude of the Colony’s dwellers toward anything organized or even faintly smelling of imposed order: the rebels have created a society where the highly intelligent inhabitants can be anything they like, either in career choice or appearance – Duke’s meeting with a group of Tolkien enthusiasts modified to look like Hobbits, Elves and so on is indeed a case in point.   Something changes, however, once the probe from Earth is discovered, not least because it was able to slip through the sophisticated net of countermeasures that were put in place: for this reason Duke is tasked with organizing the massive endeavor of picking up stakes and moving the Colony somewhere else, since their perfect hiding place has certainly been discovered.

Here is where a huge shift occurs: as the rest of the Colony moves away toward greener pastures, Duke and his team remain behind to insure no one will be aware of their whereabouts, and that’s when direct contact with the Earth probe’s AI changes everything, in a very unexpected, very dramatic way, taking away from the readers every single certainty they had gathered until that point.  It’s been a long while since I was so stunned by a story and by the way the narrative managed to lull me into a false sense of security, only to open its trap under my feet at the very last moment.

Well done indeed…

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Novella Review: PENRIC’S DEMON (Penric and Desdemona #1), by Lois McMaster Bujold

I must thank fellow blogger Mogsy, from Bibliosanctum, for mentioning this series in a post: Bujold is the author of one of my favorite SF sagas, the Vorkosigan Series, but so far I have not been as fortunate when I sampled her fantasy works with The Curse of Chalion.  So, when I heard about this cycle of novellas that promised at least some of the humor I had come to expect from the adventures of Miles Vorkosigan, albeit in a fantasy setting, I did not hesitate to try it out, and it turned out to be a winner.

The main character, Penric, is the younger son of a minor noble, on his way to a neighboring fiefdom for his formal betrothal to that lord’s daughter. While on the road, he and his retinue happen on a group of distressed people: their charge, a priestess of the Bastard god, has fallen suddenly ill and they are seeking help.  Penric, a person of good disposition, kneels near the dying woman and tries to comfort her by holding her hand, not knowing that elder Ruchia is host to a powerful demon who gets transferred to Penric as Ruchia dies.

Being the host of a demon means a huge upheaval in Penric’s life, not because demons are inherently evil, but because now the young man will be able to work magic and as such, for example, he’s not good husband material anymore. While he tries to come to terms with this and the other changes, Penric gets to know his newly acquired demon, who is a mixture of the personalities of all previous hosts (including two animals, by the way): the only thing all these personalities, that survive through the demon as a sort of collection of memories, share is that they were all female, and the fact that Penric is not gives way to a number of humorous – and for him highly embarrassing – situations.

The element that I most enjoyed in this delightful novella is the juxtaposition between Desdemona (the name bestowed on the Demon by Penric, with a gesture that is unheard of and quite appreciated by the recipient) and the young protagonist: the demon’s great store of experiences gathered while moving from body to body and Penric’s essential naiveté make for a great contrast that fuels most of the narrative and helps define his character in a very promising way.

As a beginning to the two unlikely companions’ adventures, Penric’s Demon looks quite promising, and more than worth some further exploration.

 

My Rating: 

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.  Add to it all 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: 

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: