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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: 

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: BINTI, by Nnedi Okorafor

25667918Binti is a very peculiar story, one that seems to start as journey of discovery, only to turn into something completely different; the kind of story that carries several layers of meaning, yielding them one by one only as you keep thinking about it.  It’s not what I would call an immediate story, but rather one that gains flavor and depth with time, not unlike a fine wine.

The main character, the titular Binti, is a young woman living in Namibia and belonging to the Himba tribe, a small ethnic group dwelling in voluntary seclusion from the rest of the world, a world very technologically advanced where space travel is easily accessible and Earth has come into contact with a variety of alien cultures.   The Himba, and Binti’s family in particular, have specialized in providing refined technological gadgets, but they prefer to keep contact with the outside world to the minimum, relying mostly on strict observance of tradition and cultural heritage and a general distrust of outsiders.  As Binti says at some point:

My tribe is obsessed with innovation and technology, but it is small, private, and, as I said, we don’t like to leave Earth. We prefer to explore the universe by traveling inward, as opposed to outward.

When Binti gains admission to the prestigious Oomza University through her exceptional mathematical skills, her family and the whole village do their utmost to discourage her from that path, stressing the need to keep close to her own roots and not betray them. Her quest for knowledge cannot be denied, though, so Binti leaves overnight to take the ship for Oomza, but once she sets foot in the spaceport, her family’s warnings about outsiders appear to be all too true: the Khoush, who seem to be the dominant (globalized?) population, look at her with open, blatant curiosity, commenting about her appearance, manner of dress and the ritual clay covering for her skin and hair.   It’s a jarring scene, one that should have no place in a futuristic – and hopefully more evolved – world: Binti is observed like a strange specimen, touched and inspected as if she were not another human being but a thing, not possessed of feelings or a soul.  The very fact of her difference is enough for these people to wonder at her non-conformity and to criticize it, at the same time robbing her of the status of person.

Here comes however the first inkling about Binti’s character: where others would have been offended by the incident, or ashamed of their heritage, she calmly explains the differences trying to bridge the gap in knowledge (and manners!) with her serene composure. This attitude will serve her even better once she boards the ship and starts making friends with her fellow students, the common thirst for learning creating a bond that transcends cultural distinctions.  This is where an abrupt change in narrative course plunges Binti’s journey into tragedy, the very suddenness of it a jolt that requires some time to be metabolized: the young woman finds herself alone on the ship – that is, except for the alien Meduse, whose grudge against humans brought them to commit an act of brutality.

In this moment, through her loneliness and terror, Binti’s role in the story comes to the fore: she is meant to be a bridge between two clashing civilizations, the ambassador that will help them cross the chasm of misunderstanding and hate, because she is the one who knows the value of cultural symbols, of precious heritage, and she will be instrumental in mending the rift created by human ignorance.  There is a sort of poetic justice in this: the young woman who was disowned by her own clan for having left her home in search of knowledge, and scorned by more “modern” people for her attachment to tradition, is the only one who can comprehend two different worlds and bring them closer toward mutual understanding.

Still, such an accomplishments – the personal the public one – are not without a price: Binti comes from a cultural milieu where change is viewed with suspect, and the experience she went through has changed her in many ways – mental, psychological and even physical – and the realization that she is now far from her own roots in a way that has less to do with actual distance and more with frame of mind, leaves her somewhat adrift and afraid, more afraid than she was at the beginning of her journey.

The resolution of the story is, in my opinion, its only point of weakness because it feels too easy, too short – or maybe it’s just because I wanted more: Binti is such a fascinating character that I think she should have deserved a whole novel, and her path should have had more room to expand and to delve deeper into her experiences.  Still, this remains a fascinating story, and it reinforced my need to explore this author’s longer works to discover more of her amazingly different themes.

My Rating:


Salva

Review: THE DISPATCHER, by John Scalzi (audiobook)

26082188Audiobooks represent a somewhat tricky medium for me: first, unlike books, they don’t offer the possibility of rereading a phrase or paragraph – at least not as easily as it happens with a book;  and second, I don’t seem to be able to concentrate on them as I do with books. So, until now, I’ve never looked at them as an alternative way to “consume” books, preferring to use my eyes instead of my ears to enjoy stories.

And yet, when author John Scalzi announced on his blog that this novella was available on audio, and that it was narrated by Zachary Quinto, whose voice and precise enunciation I was already familiar with through the Star Trek reboot movies, I had no doubts I would have to listen to it: Scalzi is one of my favorite authors, and every time he publishes something new, I have this compulsion to acquire it.  The fact that Audible was offering a free download for a month also represented an added incentive to overcome my misgivings about the medium.

It ended up being a very pleasant experience, and one I might replicate – at least with shorter works rather than full-length books – and I’m happy to have discovered that I’m after all able to sit down and listen for a prolonged period of time. As a matter of fact, I find it quite relaxing…

The story is an intriguing one: Tony Valdez is a licensed dispatcher – in other words, he helps people die. In this world imagined by Scalzi, it’s become practically impossible to kill people, because every person who dies at the hands of another comes back. They return, naked as the day they were born, in the place where they feel most secure – mostly that means their home, in their bed.  People still die of natural causes, of old age or illness, and they can choose suicide: this way, they stay dead. But when someone else performs the act of killing, they disappear from the place where the act was performed and go back – alive.   We meet Tony in a hospital, where he’s been called – as the insurance companies now require – to assist a surgeon during a complex cardiac operation: once it’s clear that the patient will not survive the procedure, Tony intervenes and terminates – dispatches, indeed – the patient, who goes back to his home in the same state he was before being admitted to the hospital, and probably ready to start the procedure all over again.

This introduction started me on a series of questions that the story does not answer: for example I wondered what happens with a murderer – since the victim comes back, unscathed, does the law still consider the perpetrator guilty?  The cause of this incredible anomaly is not explained, either, apart from the information that one day, out of the blue, people who had been killed did not stay dead. The reason is indeed less important than the changes it forces on society and on the way people see death: the bare fact is set there, before our eyes, and it’s left to us readers to ask the questions and – if possible – to find the answers. Or not. I guess it works either way.

Valdez is contacted by the police because one of his fellow dispatchers has disappeared: in his home were found only some traces of blood that point to a struggle and a possible kidnapping, and since Tony is one of the last people to have had contact with the missing man, he’s asked to lend his assistance as a consultant. As he helps the investigator retrace his colleague’s steps, we learn a great deal about dispatchers and their work, part of which is often carried out outside of the legally accepted roads: dispatchers sometimes take on this side jobs for money, and this can expose them to danger from the shadier facets of society.

This side jobs can be as “innocent” as helping out film crews whose stuntmen are seriously injured: instead of paying huge amounts of money in insurance and medical care, the stuntman can be dispatched and sent back to the state he was in before the accident.  But there are cases like the illegal “fight clubs” where a less-than-honest dispatcher can help avoid the necessary medical expenses for people who have been beaten within an inch of their life.

It’s while following this line of inquiry that Valdez and detective Langdon find the trail of the missing man and the reason for his disappearance, while we learn more about the price of coming back from death… All in all, a very interesting story, and one that made me think – which is not at all unusual with Mr. Scalzi.

As for the audiobook experience, it was indeed positive: Zachary Quinto is a very skilled narrator, able to give different shades of voice to the various characters and make them sound real and believable.  I had no difficulty in distinguishing between the different players in the scenes where more than two people where interacting, and some of his portrayals – notably an embittered old man and a bodyguard-type guy – were very well executed. The “voice” for the main character, Tony Valdez, drew the image of a man who is quite comfortable with himself and his peculiar profession, but has been touched by a subtle vein of disenchantment, which made him very engaging.

While I’m still not certain I could enjoy a whole book in audio form, I know that I will surely take other opportunities to listen to shorter works: the two and a half hours of this particular one seems to be an acceptable compromise for my tastes.

I guess the proverbial ice has been broken, indeed.

 

My Rating:

Review: THE GLASS FLOWER, by George R.R. Martin

0bebd-martinMy first encounter with this story was through the audio version read by Australian actress Claudia Black, whose amazing performing skills made it quite special (the different voices she can bestow on the main character’s acolytes, for example, being a case in point).  Shortly thereafter I bought and read the collection “Dreamsongs”, a retrospective of GRR Martin’s stories, interspersed with information about his writing career, and it also included The Glass Flower.  This time around, I decided to merge the two, re-reading the story while listening to Ms. Black’s performance, and it was indeed an enhanced experience: when simply listening, my mind tends to wander and I lose focus on the finer details, but listening at the same time as I’m reading the text makes for a total immersion, something that made me appreciate this story even more.

On the swamp world of Croan’dhenni there’s an alien artifact that allows the exchange of consciousness between the participants of the game of mind: the old and infirm, or the simply jaded in search of new experiences, must petition the game’s mistress, Cyrain of Ash, for that privilege.  Cyrain is almost two centuries old and presently inhabits an adolescent’s body, the young and innocent flesh a stark contrast to the woman’s wisdom and cunning: she has held this position for a long time, and though quite aware of the danger presented by her obsequiously scheming acolytes, she is certain of her own strength and resilience and harbors no fear about the future. As she says herself, “I do not defeat easily”.

This status quo in Cyrain’s little domain is disturbed by the arrival on Croan’dhenni of Kleronomas, a cyborg: once a famous general and scholar, he was believed dead for the past few centuries but has now resurfaced in search – as he says – of death: he wants a flesh-and-blood body that will decay and die.  After so much time, immortality has become a burden for the indestructible cyborg.  Cyrain, who has gone through several bodies in her quest to keep the ravages of time at bay, is intrigued by Kleronomas’ desire and accepts his petition as she would a challenge: once the game of mind begins, this challenge will bring unexpected discoveries, and an even more unexpected outcome.

One of the most fascinating aspects of this story is indeed the game itself, the way it’s played and the pain that it entails, because to be able to move one’s consciousness from one body to another, the subject must be strongly motivated, and pain is indeed the ultimate instigator.  And that is only the tip of the iceberg: the game requires that for every player who has been accepted, there must be a prey, a body whose mind is not strong enough to withstand the invading assault of the player. Still, not everything goes according to plan, as testified by the multitude camped under the walls of Cyrain’s keep: those who could not manage the transfer, or those who ended up in the wrong body. The mistress of the game feels no compassion for them, because, as she says, “I steal their bodies, but they lose their souls themselves.”

Inside this terribly beautiful narrative lies the story’s core concept, the value of life, and the age-old question about the merits of a long life versus a meaningful one, embodied by Cyrain on one side – she who above all values her glass flower, immutable and enduring in its perfection – and Kleronomas on the other – the man who was once flesh and now yearns for the natural decay denied to a cyborg.  It’s also an exploration of the concept of self, and how much of it could survive when disassociated from the body it was born in – or in Cyrain’s own words: “Who are we after all? Only who we think we are, no more, no less.”

The contest between the two weaves between word-play in reality and willpower-play in the game, and it’s a fascinating challenge, enhanced by Martin’s skillful writing: much as I enjoy his longer works, and the richness of plots and characters I can find there, it’s in his shorter stories that I often find his best qualities, as if they were concentrated and distilled in a way that a full novel does not achieve.

The more I read this story, the more I can see its exquisite perfection, not unlike that of the titular glass flower.

My Rating: