Reviews

FIREWALKERS, by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Even though I have read only a small percentage of Adrian Tchaikovsky’s works, I can see from this limited sample that his imagination can take very different roads from one book to the next, and Firewalkers is a prime example of this.

In a not-so-distant future in which climatic changes have wrought havoc on Earth, the planet is divided between areas where floods from the melting icecaps are submerging most of the land, and areas – like the equatorial belt – where desertification and rising temperatures have transformed once lush jungles into arid wastelands. The equator is still a sought-after location, though, because it’s the place where the anchor points for space elevators have been built, bringing people to the safety and comfort of the huge ships in construction. That is, those who can afford it, which is only a privileged few. The others try to eke a meager existence by servicing the crumbling infrastructure that supports the anchor and elevator and the arrays of solar panels feeding energy to them.

In one such settlements live the three main characters of the story, young people whose job is to cross the scorching, dusty desert to service and repair the solar panels located in distant areas that were once inhabited and have now been abandoned to the encroaching sands. These Firewalkers, so called because their young bodies are better suited to withstand the broiling heat of the desert, regularly endure the extreme environmental conditions to earn the relatively higher pay such jobs can bring in, risking their lives each time to provide for themselves and their families.

Nguyēn Sun Mao is the descendant of Vietnamese refugees escaped from the floods that obliterated their country and he’s the point man of the group; Lupé is of African descent and represents the engineering genius in the team, as she is able to repair or jerry-rig practically anything; then there is Hotep, so called because she protects her fair complexion under mummy-like bandages, and she is the technical expert. The three of them have been working together for some time and forged a successful unit, so that they are often given the more difficult assignments – and the most dangerous of course.

This latest assignment brings them toward a rarely – if ever – explored area, one where what remains of the palatial mansions of the rich crumbles under heat and neglect, and where unknown dangers, and even monstrous creatures are rumored to dwell. The three Firewalkers’ journey soon evolves into the search for clues to unveil a mystery, and in the discovery that something does indeed lurk in the deep desert, but it’s nothing they would have ever imagined.  The story takes on a sort of quest-like flavor, with our heroes facing known and unknown perils as we get to know their personalities and quirks, while being shown how the world we know has been changed by the damage humanity inflicted on it.

The ground crunched lifeless beneath his feet […] the sun the head of a white hot rivet driven in by some celestial smith.

The story’s main focus is on Mao, a boy in his late teens possessed with the maturity of a far older man, because the kind of life he and his crewmates lead tends to burn people away at an accelerated rate: there is little room for hope in this world, and yet we see him try to do his best in the worst of circumstances, trying to take some pride in what he does and exhibiting a natural, if laid back, quality of leadership that brings his two companions to trust him and abide by his decisions no matter how uncertain and dangerous the path. Maybe because

[…] it was Mao who had most experience walking on the surface of an alien world, even if it was Earth.

Lupé, as befitting an engineer – even one as self-taught as she is – is both efficient and business-like, never allowing dangers, either real or imagined, to get between her and the machinery she is repairing or adjusting. As the one in her family with the best-paying job, her young shoulders are burdened by the weight of keeping them as comfortable as possible, and she translates this responsibility to her traveling mates as well: there is one scene in which she keeps servicing their transport’s life support even as some problem approaches, and we see her keeping up the work with the steadiness of a much more seasoned veteran, something that is both admirable and heartbreaking.

And last, but not least, Hotep: she is the wild card of the group in that she was born in space as one of the privileged, but was sent down to Earth – literally discarded – by parents who could not bear her psychological problems and quirky, non-conformed behavior. Her prickly character, like the bandages she wears, is a way of masking the deep pain of abandonment, the resentment at the sheer, heartless injustice and betrayal she was subjected to.  It’s through Hotep’s situation that we can perceive the cruel divide in Earth’s people, because if her parents hardly flinched at condemning their own daughter to a short life of hardships and suffering without a qualm, what about the few privileged that could escape from the dying planet and are living in comfort and luxury while the rest of the population slowly dies of heat, thirst and diminishing food?

The themes developed in this story are of course climate and environmental changes, and the social upheavals following them, but there are other elements that are equally intriguing, like the construction of the massive ships in Earth orbit – probably more arcologies than mere vessels – and the space elevators connecting them to the surface. What I found truly fascinating are the remains of the previous civilization – our actual civilization, I believe – and the way the protagonists observe them as though they were relics from a more distant past, and that they are unable to connect with for lack of common references. There are several instances in which Mao & Co. talk about tv shows from the past – still being aired – and how the people depicted in there, their way of life, look more alien than extraterrestrial creatures: this, more than anything else shows us readers how our world has changed from the present conditions.

Firewalkers is a dense book indeed, in the sense that it holds many concepts in a relatively small number of pages, and that’s its only flaw from my point of view: this kind of story should have deserved more space to “breathe” and fulfill its amazing potential. For this same reason, the ending felt to me somewhat abrupt and less satisfying than I would have expected from the initial buildup, but still it was an engrossing read, and a further incentive to explore Adrian Tchaikovsky’s other works.

My Rating:

Reviews

THE FALL OF KOLI (Rampart Trilogy #3), by M.R. Carey

I received this novel from Orbit Books through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to both of them for this opportunity.

Approaching a series ender often brings contrasting emotions, particularly the concern that it might not live up to expectations: well, this was definitely NOT the case with The Fall of Koli, the amazing, adrenaline-infused final book in M.R. Carey’s Rampart series set in a post-apocalyptic future where humanity hangs on to survival by its fingernails. As is my habit, I will try to refrain from spoilers as much as I can, but be aware that some details from previous books might be mentioned.

Young Koli Woodsmith was exiled from his native village of Mythen Rood in book 1: in this future, dystopian England, the few remaining – and functioning – items of tech from the old civilization are both weapons of defense and the way for the village’s ruling clan to keep hold of their power. Having stolen a piece of tech for himself, thus uncovering a long-guarded secret in Mythen Rood, Koli is forced to leave home and start a journey across the land, gathering two unlikely companions: Ursala from Elsewhere, a sort of traveling physician, and Cup, former member of a death cult. In book 2, the three companions undertake a voyage toward mythical London, where they might find a way to revive a dying civilization, and at the end of that second book we are left with a disturbing cliffhanger.

The Fall of Koli defies any expectation one might have entertained about the story’s progression, both in developing events and in the way the story is told: equal narrative space is given to Koli and his companions and to the situation in Mythen Rood, where Koli’s one-time friends Spinner and Jon, together with the other villagers, face a deadly threat from a nearby enclave, whose superior firepower and aggressive attitude might end in death and destruction. I have come to see this series’ storytelling as the expanding circles forming when one throws a stone in water: at first we learn about the small, confined world of Koli’s home village, then we see a little of the outside world and its many dangers, and once we reach this last installment we finally understand how the world as we know it ended, what remains of its former power and what threat that dormant power represents.

The regular shifts in narrative perspective turn the story into a compulsive read, and the raising stakes on both sides of the action keep the tension at high levels, making it clear that any kind of ending is possible, and that it might not contemplate a happily-ever-after for everyone. Where the situation in Mythen Rood might look like a classic post-apocalyptic scenario where the strongest and better armed always overpower the weakest, the sections concerning Koli & Co. become progressively more disturbing as the real nature of the Sword of Albion, whose recorded message prompted the group’s journey toward London, is revealed and the individuals the travelers meet look more sinister and threatening with every passing day.

Where the overall scenario is compelling, the characters’ journey is no less intriguing: Koli is probably the one who changes less than others, but the fact that he appears to remain true to himself throughout the story does not detract from his innate kindness, selflessness and capacity for compassion, which are the traits that best define him. Koli might not be the “hero” in the widely accepted definition of the word because his strength does not come from particular acts of bravery: what defines him and makes him so relatable is his capacity for connecting to people and understanding their worth, for seeing the possibilities of redemption and change as he did with Cup before and as he does here with Stanley Banner, a truly creepy character on the outside, whose tragic destiny comes to the fore thanks to Koli’s refusal to consider circumstances only in black and white.

Spinner, once Koli’s love interest and now a prominent figure in the hierarchy of Mythen Rood, enjoys a greatly transformative journey: from young girl set on obtaining through marriage a comfortable position in the village’s society, she moves on to the role of fiercely protective mother first and equally fierce defender of her small world once outside threats come knocking on the door. In a way, Spinner achieves what Koli had set out to do and failed at: by throwing a monkey wrench in the workings of Mythen Rood’s balance of power, she helps wake her people from a sort of complacent status quo that might ultimately have led them to extinction.  Her growth is much more pronounced than Koli’s but still she tempers it with compassion and a fine understanding of her fellow citizens’ psychological traits, mixing it with a determination that belies her young age: I enjoyed Spinner’s chapters greatly and her journey was a very compelling counterpoint to Koli’s own adventures.

Last but not least Monono: Koli and Spinner are the story’s two main focuses, granted, but the Dream Sleeve’s AI personality is further explored in this third book, offering an enlightening view on her abilities and the true changes brought on by the software upload that took her to a different level of performance. Monono’s “voice” remains the same charmingly cute girl-analogue we have learned to know and love, but here – where she gets her own point of view chapters – we discover something else, a capacity for viciousness that belies the effervescent tone she employs in her dealings with humans. It’s true that at times Monono’s quips and pop-culture references provide some light relief to an increasingly tense situation – see when she mentions the Stepford Wives or the Boys from Brazil, or when she calls Morticia and Gomez the oh-so-creepy Lorraine and Paul Banner – but when she shows her true nature it’s impossible not to consider the threat other AIs have represented in fiction and to see Monono in a troublingly different light. The only factor keeping her from going down the same road as, for example, HAL 9000 or the more recent AIDAN, is Koli: the young man’s inherent kindness is indeed the balancing element conferring the human angle Monono needs to avoid that pitfall, as she says herself:

I’m not forgiving by nature, and every shit I give about your species is given – grudgingly – because I was stupid enough to get involved with a boy from the wrong side of tracks. A boy made of flesh and blood.

Be warned, The Fall of Koli does not tie up nicely the narrative threads explored throughout the trilogy since it reserves some space for tragedy and loss, but nonetheless the poignant ending of the series is both surprising and satisfactory and closes a compelling story-arc in the best possible way I could have asked for.

My Rating:

Reviews

THE TRIALS OF KOLI (Rampart Trilogy #2), by M.R. Carey

 

I received this novel from the Orbit Books, through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to both of them for this opportunity.

When I saw in my inbox a very unexpected email from Orbit announcing the ARC’s availability for the second book in M.R. Carey’s Rampart trilogy, I did not hesitate in requesting it because The Book of Koli, the first volume, was one of my best 2020 discoveries so far, and I was more than eager to learn how the protagonist’s journey away from his home village progressed. In the second volume, the focus on this post-apocalyptic world widens a little as Koli, Ursala and Cup travel in the direction of London, but character evolution remains front and center, with some interesting shifts in the interpersonal dynamics that offer promising developments for the future.

To recap the story so far: a series of environmental catastrophes and the Unfinished War left the world in shambles, and what remains of humanity seems confined only in small enclaves with little or no contact with the rest of the world. In the 200-souls village where young Koli lives the few, highly prized items of technology still functioning are in the hands of the Ramparts, the de facto leaders of the community, whose power is passed on only to the members of the Vennastin family. Once Koli discovers that the ability to wield the old tech is not tied to the Vennastins alone, he’s exiled and left to fend for himself in a world that’s become dangerous in many ways, and only his encounter first with Ursala, a sort of traveling healer, and then Cup, the former member of a death cult, increases his chances of survival and leads him on a coming-of-age and discovery journey toward London, fabled place of tech and progress.

One of the surprises of this book was that the narrative viewpoint is split between Koli and Co. on one side, and his former home of Mythen Rood on the other, through the voice of Spinner, Koli’s old friend and one-time lover, as she chronicles the events following his exile: it’s an intriguing choice, when considering the first book’s single point of view, and also a clever one because it keeps the pace lively by alternating between the two story threads, while showing how Koli’s discoveries have ultimately opened the Pandora’s box of the Vennastins’ secret and hinting at great changes in Mythen Rood’s power balance. Spinner is revealed as a layered character: at first she seems only interested in attaching herself to the Vennastins for convenience, but then she surprises the readers – and herself – by acknowledging how those apparently selfish choices have changed her and the way she looks at the world and her role in it. In the course of the story Spinner undergoes great adjustments which parallel the unsettling transformations in her small community: Koli started to perceive the possibility of a different reality through his connection with the Dream Sleeve, the piece of tech he claimed for himself, and its A.I. Monono, while Spinner here becomes aware of the wider world through a series of events that force her to mature quickly and to understand how the limited vision imposed by village life could be ultimately precarious and deadly.

For their part, Koli, Ursala and Cup (and Monono, as well) have formed an uneasy relationship: the crusty healer does not trust Cup, whose former attachment to a murderous cult makes her understandably suspicious, nor does she trust Monono and the increased abilities gained after the A.I. downloaded additional software – Ursala’s repeated requests that Koli reset the Dream Sleeve to factory standards drive a wedge of uncertainty between them that mars their former teacher/student relationship.  The dangers of the road, however, will change this balance and force the four of them to acknowledge the respective strengths, and to depend on each other for survival: the shift from grudging tolerance to playful banter and then to a sense of family is one of the most delightful surprises of the story, as are the growing friendship between Koli and Cup, the latter’s conflict with her sexuality and Ursala’s flourishing “maternal” attitude toward her charges.

Still, dangers indeed abound in the wider world: there are some sections where the small company has to fight for their lives, not just because of the natural perils of the world – like wildly mutated animals and trees – but also because of other humans who have not lost the old, ingrained penchant for dominance through aggression. There are also moments when the catastrophe that obliterated the old world manifests itself in dramatic evidence, as is the case with Koli’s first view of what remains of Birmingham: a huge field of bones that has him reacting in fear and dismay as he contemplates both the amount of people once inhabiting the land and the magnitude of the event that caused their demise, so that he feels overwhelmed by “more feeling than I could rightly manage all at once”.

If The Trials of Koli suffers a little (but only a little) from the dreaded middle book syndrome, particularly in the section devoted to the characters’ stay in the coastal village of Many Fishes, it also sets the stage for what promises to be a momentous conclusion, where hopefully many of the questions concerning the wider world and what really happened to it will be answered: the cliffhanger ending of Book 2 left me with a burning curiosity to see where the story is headed, and I’m comforted by the short interval between the first two volumes but still eager to see for myself where Koli’s journey will move next and how the developments in Mythen Rood will intersect with the main narrative.  I’m certain that Book 3 will provide those answers with the intensity I’ve come to expect from this author.

My Rating:

Reviews

THE BOOK OF KOLI (Rampart Trilogy #1), by M.R. Carey

 

I received this novel from Orbit Books, through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to both of them for this opportunity.

There was no doubt whatsoever that I would enjoy this new work from M.R. Carey: after being enthralled by The Girl With All the Gifts, The Boy on the Bridge and Someone Like Me, I knew I would be in for another fascinating journey, but The Book of Koli went beyond any expectations I might have held, and confirmed its author as a skilled storyteller in the post-apocalyptic genre.

Civilization fell a long time ago – probably centuries – so that the glories of the past have become more myth than remembrance for most: it’s not specified what happened, but it would seem that a series of climate upheavals and devastating wars destroyed the world as we know it, and what now remains of humanity is confined to small, enclosed villages leading a hardscrabble existence.  Nature now rules rather than mankind: some genetic modifications introduced in flora have turned the trees into aggressive, murderous creatures that sunlight can wake from a light slumber, and fauna is just as dangerous, if nothing else because of its increased size and inherent hostility.

Koli, the story’s POV voice, is a boy in his mid-teens living in the village of Mythen Rood, a 200-odd souls settlement that’s considered quite big for the usual standards, which shows how humanity has indeed dwindled in numbers after the fall. Koli is ready to face the testing ceremony that will mark his passage into adulthood and which consist in attempting to “wake” the pieces of old tech in possession of the village. The defense of Mythen Rood is based on four pieces of still-functioning old technology salvaged from the past: those able to activate and wield them are called Ramparts – their role of protectors also making them the de facto rulers or the community.

As every young person undergoing the testing, Koli dreams of becoming a Rampart, youthful imagination and his interest for a girl fueling those desires into something of an obsession that leads him to break the rules and come into the illegal possession of a dormant piece of tech he’s able to wake: a DreamSleeve. The object and its AI interface Monono Aware will open Koli’s mind to unexpected possibilities but also bring about the beginning of a dangerous adventure that will change his life forever.

The changed Earth we see depicted here is both a strange and fearsome place, and seeing it through Koli’s eyes – and his limited vision – shows how people’s look has turned inwards for fear of the outside: enclaves are protected by barriers, the world beyond them filled with real dangers but also by less physical ones brought on by ignorance, which is encouraged and enforced from those in power through mechanisms that are as old as the universe. It’s no surprise that Ursala, a sort of wandering doctor who travels between settlements with her drudge – for all purposes a mobile first aid/defense unit – is welcomed for her skills but considered with suspicion by the leaders, because her considerable knowledge and the news she brings from ‘out there’ might pose a threat to their authority and the aura of superiority they need to project to assert their power.

Koli’s experience in the outside world is a coming of age story, of course, and a hero’s journey as well, but it’s also a way of showing that world and how it mutated from the one we know: being on his own is certainly a harrowing situation, but it also illustrates how limiting an existence based simply on survival can be.  The most striking narrative detail here comes from the language and the way it adapted over time, becoming simpler, less concerned with grammar and syntax: I saw a few comments declaring how this aspect of the story interfered with some readers’ experience and made their progress through it more difficult, but to me it was instead the perfect way of driving home the changes people went through from a flourishing, technology-rich society to a more primitive life. Far from bothering me, this less-refined language was the perfect complement for the background the author created and added a level of poignancy to the story that would be lacking with a more polished form of expression. Anyone who read Flowers for Algernon and remembers the language progression in the protagonist’s diaries knows what I mean…

At the start of the novel, Koli is your typical teenager, preferring the carefree company of his friends to the drudgery of the work all villagers must share, and dreaming of a brighter future, one where he might be able to add the qualifier of Rampart to his name, and as such he makes ill-advised decisions dictated by inexperience and hormones, and yet he does not come across as foolish because he’s always guiltily aware of the possible consequences of his actions, and of the often illogical motivations driving them. There is a sort of mature candor (for want of a better definition) that makes him very relatable, the kind of protagonist it’s easy to root for, and his world-view, in spite of the simplified language – or maybe because of it – shows a wisdom that goes well beyond his actual age.

[…] it seemed like nothing would ever happen to change it. But it’s when you think such thoughts that change is most like to come. You let your guard down, almost, and life comes running at you on your blind side.

Yet it’s through his encounter with Monono Aware that his personality truly takes flight, this interaction between two creatures coming from very different worlds and times who nonetheless find the way to build a bridge between them, one who changes and enhances them equally through the bond of an improbable friendship that’s a pure joy to behold.  I don’t want to spend too many words on Monono because she must be encountered with as little prior knowledge as possible, but let me tell you that her liveliness, her ebullient glee and her expressive mode are the elements that make a huge difference in this story.

Where the first part of this novel was an intriguing introduction to a strange world and to wonderful characters, in the end I realized it was only the foundation of a larger adventure that will certainly develop in depth and scope in the following books, and I can hardly wait to see where Mr. Carey will lead us next. Please let us not wait too long….

 

My Rating:

Reviews

Review: TRAIL OF LIGHTNING (The Sixth World #1), by Rebecca Roanhorse

 

Trail of Lightning is one of those books that I’ve been curious to read for some time – mostly thanks to the enthusiastic reviews of my fellow bloggers – but that I’ve kept shuffling down my reading queue when distracted by other titles. Now that I’ve finally started this series, I’m both sorry that I waited so long, but also happy that thanks to my dithering the second volume is already out, so I will not have to wait too much to see the unfolding of the overall story.

Where Urban Fantasy series usually require some time to find their footing, Rebecca Roanhorse’s The Sixth World seems to hit the ground running from the very start and, despite a few narrative “hiccups”, it manages to focus your attention pretty quickly.  Mostly that’s due to the unusual setting of the story, which draws deeply from Native American lore – a new kind of background as far as I’m concerned – and not only manages to create a fascinating backdrop, but to encourage the readers to learn more about a culture they might know little, or nothing at all, about.  Which for me is always a plus.

The world has changed dramatically from the one we know: a series of environmental disasters, chief among them the Big Water (which raised the seas’ level to the point of submerging huge portions of land and killing millions in the process), have changed the face of the Earth. The few surviving areas are those either far inland or elevated from sea level: Dinétah is one such enclave – set in the region that used to be the Navajo (or Diné) reservation, it’s now encircled by a massive wall protecting the inhabitants from outside dangers, even though inside perils abound, including monsters who prey on human flesh.

This is one of the major changes brought on by world’s upheavals: in Dinétah, the ancient gods have manifested again and interact with humans (or five-fingered people, as they call them) with varying degrees of risk – the creation of such monsters being one of them.  The presence of hellish creatures requires monster slayers to keep them at bay, and Maggie Hoskie – the novel’s main character – is exactly that: trained by the god Neizghání for this purpose, she was then left to her own devices and now lives in isolation from which she emerges only to answer the desperate call of those who are beset by some foul beast.

Maggie is not an easy character to relate to: she’s abrasive and cynical, filled by an unfocused anger that comes both from the terrible past event that left her all alone in the world, and from Neizghání’s abandonment, which reinforces her growing feelings of being nothing more than a killing machine and unworthy of any kind of company.   As the novel opens, Maggie is called by the community of Lukachukai to save a young girl abducted by a monstrous creature: as she carries out the task, whose outcome is far less desirable than she anticipated, she discovers that the man-shaped animal is a new kind of beast and that it must be the product of evil witchcraft.  Asking for the knowledgeable help of Tah, an old shaman who is one of the very few people showing Maggie any kindness, she finds herself reluctantly teamed up with Kai, Tah’s grandson and a medicine-lore trainee, and the two start collecting the clues about the appearance of these new murderous creatures, while the body count keeps growing and Maggie discovers many unpleasant truths and the machinations of some of the gods walking among humans.

Along the way, Maggie’s harshness comes into a different perspective as we learn what made her the way she is now, and what comes into light is the strident contrast between her outward ferocity and her inner brittleness, which went a long way toward changing the way I saw her: she might look like a callous killer, her ability in monster slaying enhanced by the mystical powers coming from her origin clans, but inside she is not far from the terrified teenager who saw her whole world crumble in bloody pieces and who was rescued by a mythical figure who turned her into a killing machine only to abandon her with no explanation and under the weight of all her unresolved troubles and doubts.  Those same doubts about her worth as a human, about the stain of death impressed on her soul, prevent her from forming stable ties of friendship, or more, and compel her to keep some distance between herself and the people, like Tah, who know how to look beyond the hardened façade Maggie shows the world.  Maggie Hoskie is as damaged and as fascinating as another great UF character, Seanan McGuire’s Toby Daye, and even though they are different on many levels they both share that kind of inner strength that makes them fight without ever giving up – no matter the damage they might sustain.

Despite such a mesmerizing main character, the novel feels a little rambling at times, with Maggie and Kai following misleading clues and being distracted by the machinations of the trickster god Coyote: it’s only in the final part that every piece falls into place and we learn – together with Maggie – the full extent of the deception centered around her and the truth, if there is any to be had, about the people she’s been fighting with.   As I said, even though the story does reach an ending of sorts, it’s an open one and I’m glad that the next book in line is already available for me to learn where Maggie is headed next.

Apart from this great protagonist, the other fascinating element in Trail of Lightning comes from the Diné lore and the way it informs both the narrative and the character development: there is a definite sense of the proverbial iceberg here, of stories and legends barely touched on that only beg to be explored in greater depth, and yet even that little helps in giving this novel a special flavor that is both new and engaging in a genre where the extraordinary is at home.

Highly recommended.

 

My Rating:

Reviews

Short Story Review: DEATH OF AN AIR SALESMAN, by Rich Larson

 

CLICK ON THE LINK TO READ THE STORY ONLINE

 

Short stories by Rich Larson always proved to be fascinating reads, and this one was no exception, even though the core concept was truly depressing.  The future on this version of Earth looks quite bleak: pollution has reached such levels that the very air is contaminated and people must wear filter masks and protective clothing to stay outside.  Society has changed for the worse as well: people live in stifling cubicles called “sleepstacks” where they spend their rest hours laying down and watching videos, until it’s again time to go to work, moving like ants in a huge anthill.

Maya is an air seller: the company she works for bottles clean air that she peddles through the city’s milling throngs, hoping that her sale rates will make her win the lottery ticket granting the lucky recipients a vacation to one of the company’s air farms, where the sky is blue, the grass green and the air free and clean – or so the adverts say.  One day she notices a boy wearing a bright red scarf, a color that stands out in the dreary drabness of the city, and she does all she can to get his attention despite their conflicting work shifts and the thickness of the crowds, in the old, never tired game of “girl meets boy”…

What’s morbidly fascinating in this story is the depiction of the unnamed city, with its thick, murky air and the swarms of pedestrians moving to and fro in what looks like tired resignation. It’s easy to picture this urban sprawl where the only color comes from garish neon advertising signs, or the appalling image of a plaza “where there are still the husks of dried-out vines and shrubs spilling from cracked concrete planters” speaking of the death of any kind of vegetation and possibly of any hope for the future.  And yet there is a ray of light in the end, despite everything, because of the two young people meeting amid the devastation and daring to dream about the future.

A small ray, but I will take it gladly…

 

My Rating:

Reviews

Short Story Review: THE FUTURE IS BLUE, by Catherynne M. Valente

 

CLICK ON THE LINK TO READ THE STORY ONLINE

 

All the reviews I read from my fellow bloggers about Ms. Valente’s novels hinted at a very versatile author, and this short story – the second I’ve read so far – confirms that any of her works might be quite different from the others, and just as fascinating.

The setting of this tale is a post-apocalyptic scenario in which the icecaps melted and the world disappeared under water: what remains of humanity survives in floating islands of garbage, cobbled together in makeshift cities.  Garbagetown is one such island, and the narrating voice is that of a nineteen year old girl, Tetley Abednego – by her own declaration, the most hated person in Garbagetown.

She lives alone, her only friends a deformed bird and an elephant seal cub, and the dwellers of Garbagetown visit her often to hit her, viciously: we don’t know why, at this point, and our angry puzzlement grows as we see that Tetley accepts those beatings matter-of-factly, and replies to those who hurt her with “thanks for my instruction”, because that is what the law requires of her.

Through a few flashbacks we see how Tetley grew up unloved and uncared for, unlike her twin brother Maruchan, how she gained her name through the required journey across the mountains of garbage that form her island – in a rite every child must undergo – and how the arrival of the Brighton Pier, a sort of traveling show, changed her life forever.

It’s a poignant, heart-wrenching story made even more so by Tetley’s quiet acceptance of it all – not through resignation but rather pragmatism – or her description of the flotsam of the previous civilization that is now piled in mounds of endless wonder and speculation.

I loved this story, even though it broke my heart, and I am set – now more than ever – to seek some longer works by this author to explore her amazing skills.

 

My Rating:

Reviews

Review: A BOY AND HIS DOG AT THE END OF THE WORLD, by C.A. Fletcher

 

I received this novel from Orbit Books through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to both of them for this opportunity.

Post apocalyptic worlds can come in a wide variety of flavors, most of them having in common the obliteration of the greater part of the human race: either by quirks of nature, pandemics, or climate changes, mankind finds itself vastly reduced in numbers and trying to survive in what is often a ravaged land – or a very unfriendly one.  This novel, however, starts from a different kind of premise, that the dramatically dwindling population is the consequence of a devastating decrease in birth rate, one that results in the progressive, unavoidable emptying of the world, so that vegetation and fauna retake control of a landscape in which humans are more intruders than anything else.

A few enclaves survive, however, either small groups living together for support, or isolated family units: the latter is the case for Griz, the narrator of this story, whose family dwells on an island off the Scottish coast. It’s a harsh life, one made of hard work and constant struggle against the failure of ancient machinery cobbled together ingeniously from the remnants of the old world and made to function without the aid of electricity or propellants, both things having disappeared together with civilization as we know it.

Still, it’s not a bad life, despite its tragedies: Griz’s twin sister Joy died several years before falling from a cliff, and their distraught mother, searching for her child, fell badly and suffered a head injury that left her absent-minded and incapable of fending for herself. Griz’s father, older brother and sister are a tight-knit family unit, occasionally trading with the next-island neighbors, and surviving through sheep farming, some scavenging in the abandoned areas of the mainland (they call it “viking”, from Viking raiders or old) and whatever forms of agriculture the island climate allows.  And of course there are their dogs, Jip and Jess – part of the family and Griz’s best friends and faithful companions.

Things change for the worse when a passing trader elopes with Jess: like humans, dogs have suffered in their reproductive abilities and female dogs have become quite rare in litters, so Brand – that’s the name of the trader – knows he will get a good price for Jess somewhere else.  Incensed for the theft, and the awareness that the whole family has been deceived by Brand’s easy manners and tall tales, Griz jumps on one of the family’s boats and launches in pursuit of the thief, intending to retrieve the stolen dog at any cost.

What follows is of course an adventure in an unfamiliar and dangerous world, but it’s also a coming-of-age tale and a lesson about never losing sight of your humanity, no matter how harsh and unforgiving the situation becomes.   And it’s a story about the bond between humans and dogs, as well, showing us that they are not just intelligent creatures who have stayed at our side since the dawn of time (Of all the animals that travelled the long road through the ages with us, dogs always walked closest), but also the kind of companions we can always rely on, their love and devotion coming straight from the heart and never filtered through self-interest or artifice.

As easy as it is to like Griz as a character, the moments in which this youngster truly shines happen in relation with Jip the dog: they are not merely friends and traveling companions, they look out for each other, care for each other’s well-being and share a bond that goes beyond the need for words, since they seem to understand one another through an unseen connection – not so much a connection of the mind, as one of the heart.  As Griz tells the thief, in a heated exchange about the lack of laws following the fall of civilization: “…but if you steal my dog, you can at least expect me to come after you. If we’re not loyal to the things we love, what’s the point?”. Jip and Jess are family and as such they deserve the same kind of faithfulness and love as the rest of Griz’s parents and siblings – and in those simple words we can find the essence of this story and of Griz’s journey.

A side of this character that will not fail to endear it to us bookworms is the love of stories, the pleasure Griz takes in being drawn into them and letting the mind wander along the “what if…?” path that we all know so well: strangely enough, Griz’s main focus is on post-apocalyptic stories, which to me sounds like a tongue-in-cheek sort of joke and also as a curious parallel, since it’s a sub-genre I’ve always been interested on.  For me, I think it’s a matter of superstition – sort of: as long as I can read about all the ways the world might end, I know it all remains firmly in the realm of fantasy; for Griz it’s a way to understand how the world truly ended: being born in the aftermath of it all means that any information has been filtered through second- and third-hand retellings and there is no certainty that things truly happened that way.  Then there is the pure joy of losing oneself in stories – not just dystopian ones, of course: life on the island, with its definite boundaries and the need for constant hard work, does not leave much room for the mind to wander, and it’s only through books that Griz is able to move across a whole universe of possibilities.

And when the journey begins in earnest, when Griz is alone in the wide world beyond the borders of the tiny island, it’s the knowledge gleaned through books that helps in the difficult business of survival or that makes the sights and wonders more relatable, either thanks to scientific information or – again – to stories read in the past. And so the deep forests of the mainland (something that the islands lack) make Griz remember passages from The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings; or the need to escape from confinement is fueled by recalling The Count of Montecristo, and so on.

Above all, this is a story about love, loyalty and steadfast determination, but it’s also a journey of discovery: of an unknown – and sometimes unknowable – world, but also of oneself and what it means to be human. You will find a wide range of feelings here: fear and delight, joy and terror, anger and compassion – this is the kind of book that will steal your heart, taking you on an emotional rollercoaster driven by a writing that at times becomes almost lyrical despite its deceiving simplicity.  I found much more than I expected here, and I would not have missed it for the world.

My Rating:

Reviews

Short Story Review: THE HISTORY OF THE INVASION TOLD IN FIVE DOGS, by Kelly Jennings

A Short Story from Year’s Best Science Fiction Thirty-Fifth Annual Collection # 2018

Edited by Gardner Dozois

 

Short stories’ collections always offer a mixed bag, at least according to individual tastes, and this eclectic anthology proved to be no exception: there were stories that did not speak to me, others that were nice but did not compel me toward a review, and then there were those that gave me that something extra that made all the difference.  Here is one of them…

THE HISTORY OF THE INVASION TOLD IN FIVE DOGS

To say that I found the title of this story very intriguing would be an understatement: the theme of alien invasion is one I’ve always found fascinating, but it was the… dog element, for want of a better description, that piqued my curiosity, since I’m very fond of dogs, even though I can’t share my life with one. What I found here was very different from any expectations I might have held, particularly because it touched me deeply.

The unnamed character relaying her story starts with recollections of her childhood, and of her first dog, a surprise present for her ninth birthday: what follows looks like the normal process of the bonding between a kid and her dog, that is, until the family is forced to move to a refugee camp – and that’s when we learn that things are not so idyllic, because the people on the run must leave behind a great deal of precious possessions, and Elvis – that’s the name of that first dog – cannot follow her human friend in her escape.  And that was the first painful blow that this story dealt me.

From here on, things go from bad to worse: the invaders are reshaping Earth to suit their needs, altering the climate to colder temperatures and therefore bringing modifications to the eco-system, modifications that put the surviving humans on a road to starvation.  The protagonist relays her struggle for survival, first with a resistance group, then alone, and finally with a secluded community trying to eke out a living in a remote area of the mountains: in every one of these instances, our protagonist is always in the company of a dog (with one notable, dramatic exception), and you can tell that it’s the presence of these four-legged companions that helps her hold on to her sanity, or even her humanity.

If nothing else, this story is an ode to dogs, and their irreplaceable role in our lives – and I totally agree.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: ANNEX (The Violet Wars #1), by Rich Larson

 

I received this novel from Orbit Books, through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to both of them for this opportunity.

My previous experience with Rich Larson’s writing is limited to a short story I read some time ago, one that however left a lasting impression on me because of its lucid bleakness, so that once I learned this is his first full-length novel, I did not hesitate to see how that sharp storytelling translated into a longer work – and the answer is, very well.

As Annex opens, we readers are immediately thrown into the thick of things: a huge alien ship appeared over the city where the characters live, an image that strongly reminded me of Independence Day, and destroyed a number of buildings with a surgical attack. The surviving adults were then ‘clamped’, fixed with a neural interface connecting them to a virtual reality simulation of their normal lives, while they wander around, zombie-like. The children were rounded up and implanted with what they call a parasite embedded in their stomach, and are held in warehouses where mechanical constructs dubbed ‘whirlybirds’ keep them sedated and docile.

No other explanation is given about the aliens’ motivation or goals and that’s understandable since we witness events from the children’s point of view, and know just as little as they do: this might prove a little jarring at first, but the pace of the story is such that knowing the how and why of things matters less than the characters’ journey.  Two of them take the center stage from the very beginning: Bo is an eleven year old boy of Nigerian origins who managed to escape from one of the warehouses, driven by the need to find his older sister Lia, who was moved elsewhere by the aliens.  After his breakout, Bo meets with Violet and through her connects with a group of other escapees living in an abandoned theater and calling themselves the Lost Boys, led by teenaged Wyatt.  Violet is a transgender on the make: after the alien attack she saw the opportunity of granting herself what family and society denied her until that moment, and she’s been dosing herself with hormones to effect the desired transition.

The outside world Bo finds himself in is revealed in all its horror as he finds his place among the Lost Boys: besides the immanent presence of the ship and the accompanying gloom that prevents the sun from shining through – at some point it’s also shown that there is an impassable barrier at the city’s limits – the ruins are plagued by roving pods that look for stray children to capture and imprison in the warehouses and by the othermothers, bio-mechanical constructs that partly resemble the children’s real mothers and are built by the aliens to lure them out of hiding. Bo’s first act as a Lost Boy must be the killing of his othermother, to show that he’s disenfranchised himself from the world of adults, that his loyalties now lie only with his newfound family.

Both he and Violet were already outsiders before the invasion and this seems to make them uniquely able to survive in this changed world, and to retain a form of independence that the other kids lack, which in turn makes them easy prey for Wyatt’s manipulative skills: there is a strong parallel between Wyatt and the less idealized versions of Peter Pan, those where he looks less like the carefree boy and more like a scheming psychopath.  It’s indeed the arrival of Bo, and the discovery of the uncanny power he can wield through his parasite, that changes the dynamics among the Lost Boys and brings Wyatt’s underlying cruelty – and madness – to the surface, creating a dramatic turn of events inside an already tense situation.

What happens at that point requires some suspension of disbelief, since the children embark on a mission to fight the aliens and “save the world”, and frankly the sequence of events goes at times quite over the top, but the breakneck speed of this story, that develops in the brief space of few days, makes it easier to believe it all and to follow with growing nervousness Bo and Violet’s progress through the alien ship and the Lost Boys’ commando action against the alien invaders.

Much as I rooted for Bo and his quest to save his sister Lia, it was Violet’s journey that I found quite compelling: her status as a transgender person is an important issue and I appreciated how it was not her only defining trait but one of the facets that made her who she is. What I loved about her were the layers of inner conflict that made her stand out from the other characters: the struggle inherent in her gender identity; the struggle between her need for independence and her caring attitude toward the younger and needier Lost Boys; the struggle between her attraction toward Wyatt and the perception of his personality’s wrongness. But what really stood out was her inability to let go of her parents – the drunken father and the listless mother – whose house she visits regularly even though they are not aware of her presence, moving inside the implanted hallucinations of the alien clamp: the nightly visits to her former home speak highly of her continuing bond with the two most important people in her life, despite their rejection of her sexual inclination and in spite of Wyatt’s credo about clamped adults being “better off dead”, and make for one of the most deeply emotional scenes in the book.

The slowly accumulating revelations about the aliens’ intention, the children’s plight in this crazy world, their battle against the invader, all contribute to make Annex a compelling read – and I need to also mention the character of Gloom, a different kind of alien that Bo and Violet encounter at some point, a shape-shifting, self-defined saboteur whose true intentions still remain a mystery. As the first book in a trilogy, Annex introduces a fascinating background that begs for further expansion and promises a conflict whose ramifications and outcome are far from certain: I look forward to learning more about Violet & Co. and can hardly wait for the next book in the series.

 

My Rating: