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: 

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: