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:

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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: 

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Novella Review: PRIME MERIDIAN, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

 

This third work I’ve read by Silvia Moreno-Garcia confirms that she’s an extremely versatile author: after the violent world of vampires shown in Certain Dark Things, and the frivolously vicious society of The Beautiful Ones, with this novella we explore Mexico in the near future, a future where mankind has established colonies on Mars while on Earth entire areas suffer from a failing economy, their inhabitants struggling in a hand-to-mouth existence that seems to offer little hope and even less means of escape.

Amelia is a prime example of this world: once a promising student winning a scholarship that might have launched her into an academic career, she was forced to abandon the university to tend to her ailing mother, so she now finds herself with no meaningful job credentials and is forced to work for an agency that offers friends for hire.  The only escape she can envision is through her old dream of one day going to Mars, starting over in a world that looks new and promising despite its barrenness and hardships.  But to get to Mars she needs money, and in the present circumstances there is little chance that she might hoard enough to fulfill her dream…

Prime Meridian is not what you might call a ‘proper’ science fiction story: there are no alien worlds to explore or extraordinary situations to face, but rather it’s a reflection on the all too possible course of development for our world, for the way in which certain social trends are going to evolve, and their consequences on individuals.  What Moreno-Garcia accomplishes here, seemingly without effort, is to depict the lack of drive that could affect a society where opportunities are scarce and the dichotomy between the haves and haves-not has become an unsurmountable chasm, and quiet despair a way of life.

You can feel the latter quite clearly in Amelia’s day-to-day activities, her constant battle with too little money and too many demands on her time and energy.  Still, it’s the dream of Mars – the only true element of science fiction here – that keeps her going, interspersed as it is with the recollections of a former B-movie actress who is one of Amelia’s clients: the fake Mars of a movie that never saw the light because of funding problems, and that exists only in a faded poster that hints at an almost impossible promise, is the vision which seems to anchor the young woman to her goal despite the constant strife and the subdued resentment one can perceive under her listless exterior.

The picture painted by this story is quite a vivid one, the characters coming to life through a few, well-placed brush strokes that leave you with the definite impression of having seen a movie, rather than read a book. Once again, Silvia Moreno-Garcia shows her flexibility as a storyteller, and the promise that the subjects of her works will always be unexpected and intriguing.

 

My Rating: 

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Novella Review: ROGUE PROTOCOL (The Murderbot Diaries #3), by Martha Wells

 

And once more we journey through the galaxy in the company of our soap-opera-loving fugitive SecUnit, still searching for answers about the shady corporation GrayCris and on the alleged bloody rampage that caused it to kill its clients in a previous assignment – a circumstance that with time and the evidence that MurderBot is collecting keeps looking more and more dubious.   Once it learns from the news that its former mentor/protector Dr. Mensah is being targeted with pointed questions about the runaway SecUnit that Mensah took under her wing, MurderBot understands that it might be GrayCris’ way of trying to deflect attention from their crooked operations, and sets about to find more – and more damning – evidence about the big bad corporation’s misdeeds.

For someone who purports not to like humans, MurderBot keeps spending a LOT of time with them: in this instance, to reach an area where it might find some important clues about GrayCris’ illegal operations, MB finds itself on a transport full of quarrelsome humans who keep calling on it to quell their disputes, that often become very physical. Even in the almost dispassionate voice with which the SecUnit relays its story, it’s easy to read the extreme satisfaction derived by the opportunity to order those cantankerous passengers to shut up – something it never had an opportunity of doing in its previous occupation. And also an act that allows it to vent some of its pent-up frustration for not being able to watch as many episodes of Sanctuary Moon as its mechanical (?) heart desires…

The SecUnit’s satisfaction about finally being free of those insufferable passengers is however short-lived, since it needs to reach a station orbiting another failed terraforming experiment handled by GrayCris, and the only available ship transports more humans and a very friendly, almost childlike bot, Miki, who is our protagonist’s polar opposite, since it does not only like humans, but calls them ‘friends’ and acts like an overeager puppy in its interactions with them.  The need for stealth requires MB to enroll Miki’s assistance in its attempt to fly under the radar, and that exposes the SecUnit to an allegedly unwelcome onslaught of feelings that often make it regret the loss of ART, whose scholarly approach to problems was more in line with MB’s outlook.  At least on the surface.

Yes, because there are several instances in which the easy relationship between Miki and its human companions, the way they treat him as one of them, worrying for its well-being and safety, prompts a very unusual reaction in our SecUnit, one that it defines as the need to “have an emotion in private” – and there is no amount of snarky cynicism applied to that sentence that can cover the true nature of that emotion, that to me looks suspiciously like envy.   MurderBot has changed a great deal since we met it, and even though it’s not ready to acknowledge these changes – that have nothing to do with the exterior modifications it applied to itself and everything to do with the experiences accumulated since the hacking of its governor module – it’s easy to see how much more… well… human it’s becoming, and how scary that must be, even though it’s not a thought the SecUnit cares to dwell on.

The amazing – and highly entertaining – side of Rogue Protocol is that all these musings, all these questions that plague MurderBot about the nature of humans and artificial constructs, and their interactions, all occur in the course of an adrenaline-rich chase through an abandoned station where Miki’s scientists are attacked to keep them from unearthing GreyCris’ crooked operations on the planet below.  So MB finds itself once again forced to keep these humans safe, and this time it does so at the cost of heavy physical damage that might not be so easy repairable as it was when it used to be a bona fide SecUnit: the dichotomy between the dramatic situation and MurderBot’s reactions to it and to the injuries it sustains ended up being the source of much hilarity on my part – it might not sound too charitable, but all those repeated instances of “Oh shit! Oh shit!” and “Ow!” as a consequence of said situations and injuries are quite funny when rendered in MurderBot’s not-so-detached present attitude.

I needed help. I was rattled, I was still leaking a little, and I hadn’t been able to watch any media in what felt like forever.

On the other hand, the battle for survival makes for an incredibly quick reading – what used to be defined as a ‘page turner’ – and it’s relayed with such a detailed, cinematic quality that it’s easy to picture the scenes in one’s mind, and even easier to think that this could be the perfect material for a spectacular movie or a TV series: think about ambushes, energy weapons discharging along deserted corridors where every corner might hide a deadly danger, combat bots on the rampage, and any other dramatic device you could imagine.

In the end, Rogue Protocol – even more than its predecessors – does not feel like a short novella but rather like a full-fledged novel, one that successfully packs a great deal of action, information and character development into a surprising small number of pages, and that’s the reason it does not leave us unsatisfied (as it’s often the case with these shorter works), but rather eagerly anticipating the next installment and the novel-length book that was recently announced.  No matter where MurderBot will go next, I will be following without hesitation…

 

My Rating: 

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Novella Review: SUFFER A SEA CHANGE (October Daye #12.1), by Seanan McGuire

 

At the end of October Daye’s latest novel, Night and Silence, there was a welcome surprise, the novella Suffer a Sea Change which explores at some length (and promises more for the future, hopefully) one of the most poignant narrative elements of its parent novel.

A synopsis is out of the question, since it would spoil both the main book and the enjoyment of this novella, so what I can share is that it deals with a very interesting point of view character: Gillian, October’s daughter, the daughter that for so many years felt abandoned and betrayed by her mother, not knowing the real reason for Toby’s prolonged absence and her choice not to be part of Gillian’s life anymore.

One of the details I immediately noticed was how Gillian’s inner ‘voice’ is similar to Toby’s: finding herself in a scary, unusual situation, she often resorts to that form of dry sarcasm that is her mother’s way of dealing with fear and helplessness.

Gillian’s nature might be closer to her mother’s than she suspects, and this might be one of the elements that could bring them together – and considering what a weak, contemptible person Cliff turned out to be in Night and Silence, or in light of the discovery of step mother Miranda’s not-so-crystalline motivations, I believe that an intelligent young woman like Gillian might be able to see the whole picture once she’s been given all the elements she needs.

My hope for a reconciliation lies mostly in some considerations from Gillian, like this one:

 

I hadn’t quite been able to work up the energy to hate her. When I thought about her, it made me sad, not angry […]

 

or this one:

 

I had spent so much of my life hating my biological mother that it was like a physical pain in my gut to realize that she might not be the villain of the piece after all.

 

It’s clear that Gillian needs to come to terms with her confused feelings about her mother, but first she will have to work through her own problems, and adapt to a different outlook on life, and that is the promise that comes across in this short story: that she will not be alone in doing so and that the greatest help might come from the Luidaeg brings me to hope for some very interesting developments where the Sea Witch is concerned, especially in relation to Toby and the people she cares about.

There is a great deal of emotion and character development in this short story, but I can safely say it’s one of the best I read among the companion tales to October’s main journey: the promise is there, all we have to do is for it to be fulfilled – in time.

 

My Rating: 

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Novella Review: GHOSTS OF THE TRISTAN BASIN (Powder Mage #0.8), by Brian McClellan

In my first search for short stories that complemented Brian McClellan’s epic about powder mages, I must have missed a few, and only a recent search unearthed other works I knew nothing about: it goes without saying that I would not think twice about reading them as well…

 

 

Set a few months before the events in Promise of Blood, this novella offers a double bonus: one that allows us to see more of Taniel’s deeds during the Fatrastan war for independence from the Kez, and one where we are introduced to a beloved character from Gods of Blood and Powder, none other than Mad Ben Styke.   As the story begins, the Tristan Basin Irregulars – the Fatrastan militia Taniel and Ka-poel have attached themselves to – have been harassing the Kez in the inhospitable swamps that cover the Basin, keeping them quite occupied with guerrilla warfare.

Returning to their base camp, they learn about new orders: the city of Planth, where Governor Lindet has retreated to regroup her forces, is threatened by a Kez army, and the Irregulars must get there quickly to shore up the city’s defenses. As grim as the situation appears, since the rebels are vastly outnumbered, a slim ray of hope is represented by the arrival of Colonel Ben Styke and his Mad Lancers, an elite troop that seems to be made out of warriors as berserker as their leader – and Planth will need their madness if the citizens want to survive…

As I said, there were two main points of interest in this story: for starters, I enjoyed seeing a very different Taniel from the one I met in the Powder Mage books. Much as he’s still trying to get out of the shadow of his very famous father, Taniel here appears like a more sympathetic character, a young man driven by the ideal of helping the region’s inhabitants gain their freedom from the Kez, whom he hates deeply since they were responsible for the execution of his mother.   He’s honing his skills in the conflict, and he’s also strengthening the ties with his local guide Ka-poel, the young mute woman whose weird abilities he’s just starting to know.  The only trait he shares with the older Taniel is his aversion to authority, especially when Lindet’s orders concerning the fate of Planth clash against his sense of duty.

That’s probably the main reason he seems to form a sort of bond with Ben Styke, the mountain of a man leading the Mad Lancers: the Ben Styke we meet here is also a very different person from the one appearing in Sins of Empire, since he has yet to endure the physical and psychological abuse of his long years in the prison camp, so that it’s a pleasure to witness the depths of joyful abandon as he launches himself in the activity he loves most – fight.  And fight he must, together with his Lancers and the Irregulars, if he wants to save the city, against almost insurmountable odds, yet there is more to him than just a practically invincible warrior, because here he exhibits humor, and cunning and courage, all wrapped into a carefree attitude that makes it impossible not to like him, and enjoy the pages that focus on him.

Losing myself in this story was a wonderful experience, and I strongly recommend it both to all McClellan fans and to those who still don’t know this author and series: you will not be disappointed…

 

My Rating:  

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Novella Review: RETURN TO HONOR (Powder Mage #1.5), by Brian McClellan

In my first search for short stories that complemented Brian McClellan’s epic about powder mages, I must have missed a few, and only a recent search unearthed other works I knew nothing about: it goes without saying that I would not think twice about reading them as well…

 

This story was quite a delightful find, not only because it features Vlora, but because it goes some way toward filling the empty narrative space between the events in Promise of Blood (where we learn of her dalliance with another officer and the breakup with Taniel) and her welcome return as Lady Flint in Sins of Empire.

Return to Honor begins shortly after the end of Promise of Blood, when Vlora is still very much a pariah because of her indiscretion, and also mourning the death of Sabon, one of Tamas’ closest friends and Vlora’s mentor.  A still-very-angry Tamas orders her to seek and capture a traitor who intends to defect to the enemy carrying important intelligence with him: what remains unspoken is that success might work a long way toward restoring, at least in part, the Field Marshal’s respect.   As encouraging as this might sound, the prospect of failure still hangs over Vlora, and what’s more she must do it alone, because Tamas does not intend to spare anyone to help her.

It’s impossible not to feel deeply for Vlora here: she’s conscious of her mistake and bitterly regrets it, but the worse part of the situation comes from the attitude of her fellow soldiers since they – either for personal inclination or to curry favor with Tamas – treat her like the worst kind of trash, even those that used to be her friends.  That’s when unexpected help comes in the person of the Field Marshal’s bodyguard, Captain Olem…

My knowledge of the shared history between Vlora and Olem in Gods of Blood and Powder enhanced my appreciation of this first encounter between them, where I could witness the ease with which they manage to work well together despite barely knowing each other, and more importantly where Olem’s laid back attitude acts like a balm on Vlora’s damaged soul, taking her out of her misery and bringing the sunnier side of her character to the fore.

One of the best Powder Mage short stories to date, indeed….

 

 

My Rating: