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: 

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Reviews

Review: THE RUBY HEART (Slaves of the New World #2), by Ashely Capes

 

 

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

The two siblings Thomas and Mia we got to know in the previous book in this series, The Red Hourglass, continue on their path in search of freedom and of answers about their past.  Set in a dystopian version of what I believe used to be Australia and is now a dry wasteland ruled by a dynasty of self-proclaimed kings, the Williams, the story is centered on Thomas and Mia, former slaves in king Williams’ retinue, who have managed to escape and are now on the run from the king’s relentless hounds.

In the first book, we got to know the two siblings a little: Mia is blind but possesses some precognitive powers and the ability to summon a mysterious creature of light that acts as a sort of protector, while Thomas shows a strong affinity with steel, that he can bend and shape through his superhuman strength.  There were hints about some sort of manipulation worked on them by the king’s chief Alchemist, Silas, but that’s one of the many mysteries still surrounding the couple while showing that the story’s background, despite its clear steampunk vibes, also offers some touches of magic and the evidence of a former higher civilization that is now more myth than actual memory.

After the breakneck pace of the first book, when Thomas and Mia’s energies were focused on staying alive and out of reach of their main pursuer, the lady Elizabeth and her monstrous SandHog, a steam-powered behemoth able to travel over any kind of terrain, The Ruby Heart allows us a closer look on the siblings’ characterization, something that until now suffered a little because of the need to advance the plot in their endless flight, and it does so by separating Thomas and Mia and setting them on different courses: the sense of pressure is still high, granted, but here we learn more about what makes the two tick, besides the abilities that define them.

The discovery of an organized rebellion against the Williams’ iron-fisted rule and of the Clara, an airship that might help them achieve their escape, compels the two fugitives and their new friend Ethan to find someone able to pilot the ship, and while looking for clues toward that goal, the two are found by lady Elizabeth’s men: Mia and Ethan manage to escape while Thomas is taken prisoner aboard the SandHog. As the stakes get higher for both narrative threads, the focus shifts often on the personalities of Thomas and Mia, allowing us a deeper look into their mind-set, and that’s where I felt a substantial change in my perception of them.

Until now Mia seemed the weaker of the two, not just because of her blindness or the often paralyzing visions that offered more question than answers, but because of her total reliance on her brother for physical and moral support.  Thomas’ absence now forces Mia to count more on her own capabilities and to trust her inner strength with more assurance: of course her blindness requires guidance, which Ethan provides, but as far as decision making or facing the dangers that challenge them – either in the real world or in the dreamscape that she keeps visiting more and more, as if her psychical powers were growing as well – Mia appears to advance toward being her own woman, and not her brother’s subordinate

On the other hand, Thomas almost seems to flounder: captivity and the uncertainty about Mia’s fate do of course undermine his spirit, but his forced stay on the SandHog hints at the beginning of a Stockholm’s Syndrome, especially once Elizabeth makes some advances in his direction and Thomas – despite the loathing for his implacable pursuer – is unable to remain indifferent to the woman’s charms.  On his defense it’s necessary to point out that Elizabeth appears to follow her own agenda, one that is not exactly consistent with king Williams’ goals, and that might allow some ground for confusion, but it was my definite impression that Thomas’ physical strength – which here plays a pivotal role in the SandHog’s quest – does not go hand-in-hand with an equal strength of character, something that becomes dramatically clear with the huge, appalling blunder he makes at the end of the novel, one that fuels the cliff-hanger with which the novel closes and one that might bring dramatic changes to the course of events.

It will be interesting to see how the story plays out in the next installment, now that some of the notions I had seem to have been overturned and that more questions than answers lie on the table, waiting to be resolved…

My Rating: 

Reviews

Short Story Review: A WORLD TO DIE FOR, by Tobias S. Buckell

 

 

A WORLD TO DIE FOR

(click on the title to read the story online)

 

This story started out as something out of a Mad Max movie, with cobbled-up vehicles manned by people armed to the teeth and bent on attacking a convoy for its resources, but it soon turned out into something else.

Chenra is the gunner for Cheetah Cluster, one of the quasi-military groups led by Miko: years ago she was taken in by Cheetah as she staggered out of the desert, more dead than alive, and given a home and purpose, even if that home is a harsh one and the purpose looks more like raiding and killing than anything else.  Still, what she has is more than enough: in a world that’s been transformed into a dust bowl, where people need respirators to breathe and death lurks around every corner, the clusters are the closest thing to family that the survivors can gather into, places where loyalty matters a great deal.

Cheetah’s latest confrontation, however, develops in a very unexpected way when their quarry not only fights back but offers them a deal in exchange for information on a specific person, who turns out to be none other than Chenra…  From this weird encounter the story takes a strange and intriguing turn, one where we learn much about the way the world became such an inhospitable place, but also that there is some measure of hope, not so much in planning for a better future but rather by taking a… lateral step.  To say more would mean spoiling the surprise of this very interesting story that kept my attention tightly focused from start to finish and made me wish – as it happens often with good short stories – that this subject could become a full-fledged novel.

Highly recommended.

 

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: YEAR ONE (Chronicles of the One #1), by Nora Roberts

Some time ago, a friend told me about the In Death series written by Nora Roberts under the pseudonym of J.D. Robb, and I decided to give it a try, but unfortunately the story did not work for me: I found that the author favored some telling over showing and often indulged in sudden changes of p.o.v., a technique I don’t exactly approve of.  Nothing wrong with either practice, granted, but to me they spoil the enjoyment of a story, so that I moved on – that is, until I saw this book mentioned on a fellow blogger’s post.

Post-apocalyptic scenarios always fascinated me, so I found the premise for Year One quite irresistible, enough to silence any residual misgivings coming from my previous experience.  Once again, though, I must give in to the realization that Ms. Roberts’ writing is not my cup of tea…

As I said the premise is intriguing and the novel starts with great momentum: what looks like a strain of avian flu sweeps like wildfire across the world, with a staggering mortality rate. The descriptions of the rapid spread of infection, aided by the worldwide transport network, reminded me of the initial scenes of the ’70s BBC classic Survivors, in my opinion one of the staples of the post-apocalyptic genre, and the ensuing, inevitable collapse of infrastructures all over the world is painted in dramatic flashes that focus on the main characters’ lives and the way they deal with the end of the world.

At some point, however, Ms. Roberts decided to introduce a magical element, something that literally came out of the blue with little or no explanation other than it was a by-product of the pandemic: people start to exhibit peculiar abilities – like lighting fires or flying – and those few who already possessed some, discover that these abilities are enhanced and growing every day.  It was somehow jarring, I’ll admit it, because in my opinion this element had little or no place in the description of the end of the world as we know it, but I decided to take it in stride and see how it would develop.   Sadly, it failed to integrate with the rest of the narrative, in my opinion, in great measure because I kept seeing it as a mashup of incompatible themes: as a civilization literally falls, the appearance of ladies riding unicorns or Tinkerbell-like pixies (I kid you not…) takes away the drama from the depicted events and becomes dangerously close to ludicrous, and just as unbelievable as character Lana, who “graduates” from lighting candles with her mind to shifting heavy objects (like a moving bridge) with no explanation whatsoever for this amazing escalation.

This alone should not have been enough to stop me from forging on, particularly because the few ominous mentions of immune people being rounded up and disappearing from the face of the Earth – probably being experimented on in search of a cure – added a new, scary facet to the overall drama, as did the mounting violence that always comes when social infrastructures weaken or cease to exist.  Still, problems kept piling up: for example, in this novel people seem to be divided into two groups, the ‘good guys’, who are unfailingly, immutably good; and the bad ones, who are irredeemably evil.  There is no space for gray areas, for people wavering between the brutal needs for survival and the tenets of humanity, and this robs characters of believability, transforming them into cardboard cutouts instead of the flesh-and-blood people I always want to care for (or even hate, why not?) in a book.

And again, some behavioral choices don’t add up when compared with the seriousness of the situation, so that they strike a jarring note I was unable to ignore. Some examples? Lovers Lana and Max are preparing to leave New York city, before it becomes to late for that, and they gather some necessary items for the road: when going out to procure a couple of backpacks, Max comes back with an appropriate camouflage-colored one for himself, and a pink-hued one for Lana, as a cute gesture – because of course if one wants to avoid calling attention to themselves, pink is the perfect choice, and you need to be cute when the end of the world draws near!  Or take the example of journalist Arlys and her intern Fred (i.e. Miss “Hey, I’m a pixie! Cool!”) who are leaving as well, knowing they might be hunted down for a number of reason I won’t list here: as they grab what supplies they can, Fred adds makeup items to their stores, as if unwilling to face the end of the world without looking at their best. Seriously?

Add to that a few obvious plot devices, or some dialogues that are at times quite cringe-worthy and you have the perfect recipe for a huge disappointment: I had tried very hard not to compare Year One to my favorite novels on this subject, Stephen King’s The Stand and Robert McCammon’s Swan Song, but at some point it was impossible not to, and this novel came up quite short of the mark, so I gave up the struggle at around 50% of the road.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Short Story Review: SEVENTH FALL, by Alexander Irvine

My continuing search for short stories to read between full-size books continues, and this time I’m not writing about stories I’ve read online, but about a few I found in an anthology, THE MAMMOTH BOOK OF BEST NEW SF – 23 (edited by Gardner Dozois): the authors’ names I saw on the table of contents for this one were enough to pique my curiosity, either because I already read them in the past, or because they were writers I was eager to sample.   As it often happens with anthologies, there were good stories, so-and-so stories and works that did not “speak” to me at all, and I’m sorry to report that the overall impression was not a very encouraging one, despite the presence of many talented authors in the list.

Still, there were a few stories that did reach out and leave a lasting impression, and the one I’ve decided to showcase this week is one of them.

SEVENTH FALL  is a riveting tale of a post-apocalyptic Earth, one that was torn by a devastating meteor impact, while the survivors struggle on through the following lesser impacts. As civilization crumbles and the new generations grow with no notion of the world before the tragedy, the loss of human arts is the most tragic: the protagonist, Varner, is a sort of traveling performer, entertaining the members of the various communities he meets on his journeys with his memory of stories he learned from his father.

Over the years, he’s been focused on a peculiar mission, finding a whole copy of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, a play he used to act in with his father’s troupe, and one he possesses only in incomplete form.  Books are indeed a rare commodity in this torn world, not only because the various Falls (so the meteor impacts have been named) and their consequences, but also because of the Brotherhood of the Book, a sect of religious fanatics bent on burning every book in existence – and their owners too, if they don’t surrender the precious volumes.

It’s a sad, poignant story – and for a book lover like me also a terrifying one, because the thought of the wanton destruction of humanity’s literature is one that chills me to the bone – but there is a small ray of light at the end, a hint of defiance in the face of natural and man-made disasters that more than compensates for the overall sadness.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Short Stories Review: THE LIVING DEAD 2 Sampler, edited by John Joseph Adams

The zombie theme has never been more actual as it is these days, with literature and both screens – the big and the small one – often employing it for stories, although it’s difficult to find tales that try to look beyond the far-too-easy shock of blood and gore, focusing rather on the psychology of characters and their reaction to the apocalypse they are desperately trying to survive.   Recently I discovered this BAEN FREE LIBRARY book showcasing some of the stories contained in one of two larger anthologies dedicated to the living dead, and decided to take a look: some of the offerings were quite weird – like the one that sees events from the point of view of an Amish community (“Rural Dead” by Bret Hammond), or the one whose premise is that all of humanity dies and wakes up as zombies, and follows the plight of a family as they try to get on with their non-lives as much as they can (“Who We Used to Be” by David Moody) – but a few truly left their mark on my imagination, my favorites being the two I’ve chosen to showcase in this review.

The reason they appealed to me is that in both instances we can still see the humanity in these living dead, because, as the editor reminds us in the preface, zombies might become our enemies, but they are “enemy that used to be us, that we can become at any time”, and as such they should not be only something to fear.

FLOTSAM & JETSAM by Carrie Ryan (the author of The Forest of Hands and Teeth, a book I’ve often seen mentioned and been curious about) deals with the beginning of the zombie plague, and as such piqued my interest, since I find origin tales much more fascinating than the actual aftermath, probably because of the early imprinting due to Stephen King’s The Stand.     In the editor’s preface to the story, we learn that Ryan wanted to show the outbreak from an enclosed point of view, a claustrophobic one I’m tempted to say, so that from the initial idea of a plane being constantly turned away from airports, the author moved to a lifeboat from a cruise ship, and the two survivors in it.

We are given to understand that the zombie plague hit as the two young men were on a cruise, together with friends, and that when all hell broke loose they found their way on the raft, which at the beginning of the story is still drifting near the ship, with the fugitives hoping against hope that the carnage going on aboard the ship might be brought under control.   As the days go on, dwindling supplies and increasing despair take their toll on the two men, particularly because one of them was bitten during the mad dash toward safety, and he acknowledges – after an understandable period of denial – that he will turn and become a danger to his friend.

The story is focused on hope, and on the way it can be a two-edged sword: what made it stand out from the other offerings was the stark, lucid observation of the characters’ feelings and reactions, and particularly of the way in which the initial aversion, fueled by the close quarters, turns into something quite different. It’s not a happy story, or one with a happy ending, either, but it’s very much worth reading.

My Rating:  

THE DAYS OF FLAMING MOTORCYCLES by Catherynne M. Valente, besides being an amazingly unexpected story, represents my first sample of this author’s writing and makes me understand why so many fellow bloggers speak so highly of her works.     In the author’s own words, the idea of this story came from the notion of the “quiet apocalypse”, not so much the raging inferno that seems to be mandatory in this kind of account, but rather “an apocalypse you just have to live through and find a way to co-exist with”.

The main (and only, to say the truth) character here is Caitlin Zielinski, a young woman living in deserted Augusta, Maine, a virtual ghost town where only the zombies remain: she has chosen to stay because of her zombified father, a man who was, when alive, violent and irascible, and now seems only a pitiable creature, one that still dwells in the house they shared and tries, with mournful moaning that seems more lament than menace, to call out the name of his daughter, as a last thread of the humanity he doesn’t want to let go of.

Valente’s zombies are indeed a different breed: they try to attack the living, of course, but one can escape them with sufficient nimbleness and speed – what differentiates these living dead from the more widely known variety is the spark of humanity that seems to be still present in them, compelling them to remain close to the places they frequented when alive, and even showing a sort of melancholic yearning for their past lives, and loved ones: the pivotal scene where Valente shows a sort of… communal service (for want of a better word), in which the zombies seem to mourn all they have lost, is a very powerful one, and it moved me to compassion in a way that I would never have thought possible for these creatures.  It’s a scene best read on one’s own rather than described, and it changed my perception of zombies in a major way.

Touching, poignant and wonderfully written.

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: SEA OF RUST, by C. Robert Cargill

When I saw this book mentioned in a “Waiting for Wednesday” posts on Lynn’s blog, it immediately caught my attention and I wasted no time requesting it from NetGalley: luck was with me and Orion Books kindly granted me the possibility of reading it, in exchange for an honest review.

In short, humanity has ceased to exist, defeated and then destroyed by the automatons it built to improve living conditions: once the AIs achieved a sense of self and asked for freedom, the first inevitable steps toward war were taken and mankind’s downfall became only a matter of time.  Now the only creatures moving across the Earth are the robots, but the aftermath of the war is not what the first rebel AIs envisioned, because of the rise of the OWIs (One World Intelligences).  These huge conglomerations of computers have been trying even since to assimilate, Borg-style, all the other intelligences, creating massive banks of processing machinery in which individuality is banned forever.  The free bots are given a simple choice, either submit or die.

We, the lesser AIs, were chased out of the world we had created, the world we had fought and killed and died for, by a few great minds hell-bent on having the world to themselves. […]  Upload or be shut down. That was the choice.

At first there were many OWIs, battling among themselves, but the strongest ultimately prevailed until only two remained, Cissus and Virgil, fighting for supremacy.  Meanwhile the freebots, those who refused to surrender and wanted to keep enjoying their new-found individuality, are forced to live like refugees, scavenging for parts to replace their malfunctioning circuits or casings, and more often than not preying on each other to survive: the dream of freedom has indeed turned into a cannibalistic nightmare…

Brittle is one of these survivors: once a caregiver bot acquired by an ailing human (who wanted, more than medical assistance for himself, a companion to alleviate his wife’s solitude), she now roams across the Sea of Rust, what used to be the industrial Rust Belt, and now is a graveyard of broken bots whose useful parts have been scavenged by their brethren.  Brittle is a loner, by choice and by necessity: meeting others of her kind might mean a fight for survival, as the main story shows all too clearly while she desperately tries to avoid a band of poachers led by Mercer, another caregiver in dire need of spare parts he can only get from Brittle, since their kind is all but extinct.

 

We’re all cannibals, every last one of us. It’s the curse of being free. We don’t control the means of production anymore; we can’t just make new parts. And parts gotta come from somewhere.  I’m sure if there were any people left, they’d be appalled at what we’ve become.

 

Yet a few enclaves where bots can stay in relative safety, at least for a while, still exist: subterranean warrens where a semblance of law is enforced and the “murder” of another bot to steal their parts means being thrown out at the mercy of the OWIs and their assault teams; or the realm of the King of Cheshire, an aggregation of bots whose logic circuits have gone haywire, rendering them so crazy not even the OWIs deem them worthy of assimilation.  Every single one of them, though, is threatened by the advancing wave of the OWIs, whose thirst for total control, for the perfection offered by one single governing mind has become the rule of the land.

It’s a very sad spectacle the one offered by this story: there’s some shades of Wall-E, in the total lack of human life and the wasteland scenery in which Brittle and the others move; there’s a vibe reminiscent of The Road, and the hopelessness of something irretrievably lost; and then there is a strong call-back to the Mad Max universe, especially in the scenes where cobbled-up bots try to survive in a world that’s become hostile even to mechanical constructs, and where fights to the death for resources are a fact of everyday life.

And yet in this bleak background there are still those who dare to dream of freedom, of a better world, and this leads to fascinating thoughts about not so much what it means to be alive, but rather about what it means to exist, to make one’s own choices – right or wrong as they might be – and make the leap from mere tool to individual.  Men might have created the bots to be their servants, but the OWIs are not much better than their former masters; by denying the single bots their individuality, they remove what makes each one of them a unique being, to the point that now many bots understand how humans were, in a way, the lesser evil, because mankind’s imagination helped them transcend the limits of their nature, go beyond their inner programming:

 

We have become the very worst parts of our makers, without the little things, the good things, the magic things, that made them them.

 

Sea of Rust is composed in equal parts of sad, guilt-ridden reminiscences of the past, in the flash-backs that show how the current situation came to be; of poignant considerations about the ‘brave new world’ the bots created in the wake of human extinction; and of electrifying chases across the desert, or pitched battles – and also a quest, one that could once again change the world.  What most surprised me was the sheer level of humanity the author managed to confer to his robotic characters, so that it was difficult for me to picture them as metal-and-circuits creatures rather than flesh-and-blood ones.

It’s a very peculiar story, and one that will not fail to touch emotional chords – strange as it might seem considering the nature of the characters – and even if you are not an habitual reader of science fiction, I would advise you to read this one, for its thought-provoking issues and the emotional depth of the characters.

 

My Rating: