Reviews

Review: EMBERS OF WAR (Embers of War #1), by Gareth L. Powell

When I started reading the synopsis for this novel, as soon as I reached the words “sentient ship” I stopped paying attention to any other detail, since this has been a favorite theme since the times of my long-ago encounter with Anne McCaffrey’s stories, and more recently with the Leviathan Moya of the acclaimed tv show Farscape.  And once I discovered that in Embers of War the ship Trouble Dog is not simply sentient, but enjoys its own first person point of view, I knew I was in for a delightful experience – but I’m getting ahead of myself, so let’s proceed with order…

The action takes place in what feels like a distant future, when humanity has been discovered by and welcomed into a sort of galactic federation called the Multiplicity: such enlightened company has not changed humans very much though, and therefore the story opens on the final stages of a brutal conflict between two factions, the Conglomeration and the Outwarders.  The former, knowing the war might go on for a long time with heavy casualties on both sides, decides to strike a massive blow against its opponents and causes the total destruction of a planet covered by a sentient forest, where Outwarder and Conglomeration forces are locked in endless guerrilla skirmishes.

Years later, Captain Sal Konstanz commands a vessel of the House of Reclamation, an organization devoted to the rescue of endangered spacers, and her ship, the Trouble Dog, used to be one of the vessels tasked with the annihilation of Pelapatarn, the planet destroyed in the prologue: the ship, gifted with sentience thanks to a mix of technology and human brain cells, feels the need to atone for its past actions (evidently not subscribing to the easy alibi of “I was just following orders”, as many humans do) and believes that working for  the House of Reclamation is a start to balance the lives lost to wartime destruction.

The House of Reclamation is indeed a fascinating concept, a mix between the Red Cross and the Foreign Legion, where one’s past and previous affiliations cease to matter and the only goal is that to save lives.  For this reason they are not subject to any one planet or system’s laws and they are free agents commanding respect from all factions thanks to their humanitarian goals.   This does not mean, however, that they are immune from dangers, and as the Trouble Dog is called to render aid to a liner that was attacked while exploring a peculiar group of planets called ‘the Gallery’, ship and crew find themselves in the crosshairs from competing factions poised to start another conflict.

Besides Sal Konstanz and her crew – former Outwarder soldier Alva Clay, the alien engineer Nod and the young, inexperienced medic Preston Menderes, who’s been assigned to the Dog after the demise of the previous doctor – the story’s points of view include poet Ona Sudak, a passenger on the attacked liner and also a woman with a dark secret in her past; and Ashton Childe and Laura Petruska, respectively a Conglomeration and Outwarder agent.   Their individual paths converge on the Gallery system, a group of planets that a mysterious alien race carved into bizarre shapes and where a chance find opens a portal toward a distant part of the galaxy and the encounter with an old alien race.

This is a story that moves forward at a very good pace, thanks to the author’s narrative skills in keeping the action rolling, and his choice of alternating between the main points of view while having each of them relate the events in the first person, thus giving a more hands-on perspective to the whole scenario as he builds the individual characters. If there is a common bond between these different individuals (and I count Trouble Dog among them) is the strong need for redemption, or freedom from their inner ghosts – or both: for example, Captain Konstanz’s life is dotted with losses, so that she works to save lives to balance those that were taken from her, and sometimes the struggle becomes so painful that she needs to physically retreat from everything and everyone, to elaborate her pain in solitude.  Ashton Childe is profoundly disillusioned by his life’s choices and believes that his current assignment as a spy and military adviser in a far-off conflict is leading nowhere, crushing him under the weight of uselessness and despair.  Or again young Preston is desperately trying to live up to his father’s standards, and doomed to failure by devastating psychological problems.

Still, the most interesting character remains that of Trouble Dog, formerly a Conglomeration ship of the Carnivore class (interesting denomination, this one…) and part of a pack of similar ships built for speedy ruthlessness of action: witnessing the destruction of Pelapatarn and its living forest, knowing that in the massacre uncounted lives were lost, besides the age-old sentient trees, changed its attitude – or probably the growing and learning human brain cells implanted in its systems realized the full consequences of the Carnivores’ strike, and reeled from it in horror.  Nonetheless, despite having now dedicated itself to saving lives instead of taking them, Trouble Dog perceives that its feral instincts are not vanquished, but simply dormant, ready to be awakened in defense of its crew and the people it rescues: I loved how the Dog acknowledges its dual personality, the streak of ingrained violence existing alongside more noble feelings, and how it manages to make them work for the good of the crew through a very creative application of computerized logic.

The ship’s twofold nature is also a good mirror for the story itself: on one side we have action scenes and a plot whose tension grows with the turning of each page as the characters converge toward a well-crafted peak of confrontation and discovery; on the other we are made privy to many inner struggles to protect the life choices they made without jeopardizing the nobler pursuits of their new existence.  The result is a captivating story led by interesting characters, and two of them stand out for very different reasons: one is the alien engineer Nod, whose extreme focus on his job and his spiritual goals make him probably the most stable personality aboard the Trouble Dog, and whose manner of speech – or rather, thought – is a delightful combination of single-minded innocence and affectionate mocking of his human companions’ perceived quirks.  The other is the poet Ona Sudak: even before discovering what lies in her more than checkered past, I could not relate to her because she seemed too detached, too coldly calculating to really make a favorable impression on me; and as the story progressed, I found that I ultimately disliked her.

In the end, Embers of War is revealed as an introduction to a more complex plot, one that will develop over the next books in the series: here we are given glimpses of an age-old alien mystery and of the way it might impact on the present – and very volatile – situation.  Consider me quite intrigued and firmly on board for the rest of the journey…

 

My Rating: 

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Reviews

Short Story Review: Selection from BRAVE NEW WORLDS, Edited by John Joseph Adams

Here is another happy find from the Baen Free Library, a section of the Baen site where a good number of books is offered for free download, as a way to sample authors and their works.  Selections from Brave New Worlds is a sampler from a larger collection of short stories, this time with a dystopian theme. Not all of them were concerned with ruin and destruction changing society, as is often the case, but they were all quite intriguing in their very different outlook.

AMARYLLIS, by Carrie Vaughn

As the editor writes in the introduction, a dystopia is not necessarily a synonym for “post-apocalyptic” and it does not necessarily depict a bleak scenario.  This is particularly true for Amaryllis, since here the end-of-the-world-as-we know-it has already happened, and is something that belongs to the past.  Society has adapted to the new living conditions, and found new ways to carry on and move forward – there is no tragedy to deal with, but this does not mean that things are easy…

The titular Amaryllis is one of several fishing boats, tasked with the job of providing fish for the coastal community where the crews live: after the upheavals that changed the world, a new way of life has taken hold, one where checks and balances rule every human action, to avoid upsetting the eco-system and falling into the same mistakes of the past.  For this reason, each fishing boat is assigned a quota that must not be exceeded – “take what you need, and no more”, this is the golden rule that regulates all activities. Including reproduction.

In this new world, families are not necessarily formed through blood ties, but rather built on commonality of interest, and Marie – the owner and skipper of Amaryllys, has built her small family group around it and turned it into a thriving reality despite the big stigma hanging over her, since her mother’s pregnancy was not sanctioned by the community and it caused the disbanding of the family group.  When the latest addition to Marie’s clan, Nina, starts expressing the desire to have a baby, the skipper must face some difficult decisions…

I liked this short story very much, because it manages to convey poignancy without need to delve into tragedy and turmoil. Still the message is a fascinating one: how much control over our lives, our legacy to the future, are we ready to leave in the hands of the law? Even though these laws have been drafted to protect humanity from its past mistakes?   Carrie Vaughn’s reply to the question is a fascinating and delightful one, indeed.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Short Story Review: MARTIAN BLOOD, by Allen M. Steele

 

MARTIAN BLOOD, by Allen Steele

(click on the link to read the story online)

 

Mars is still a planet shrouded in mystery despite the numerous unmanned probes that have explored its terrain and examined its soil: being the almost-habitable planet closest to Earth, it has fired the imagination of both scientists and writers, the former picturing the possibilities of colonization and of establishing there a new home for humanity; the latter conjuring up a wide variety of scenarios, from lost civilizations sprawling across the planet to merciless invasions, and so on.

This short story takes a different approach, postulating that Mars has been colonized by Earth people and shortly turned into a sort of tourist trap, complete with fake “Martian experience” guided tours, lavish hotels and casinos – think of Las Vegas on the Red Planet…  In this scenario, one where Mars is habitable and its surface dotted with water courses – quite unlike well-established reality – the original Martians have decided to remove themselves from interaction with the invading humans, avoiding contact as much as possible, and in those cases only with a few selected individuals.  The comparison with America’s Indian tribes comes of course to mind very easily…

Jim Ramsey is Mars born, the son of colonists from the first wave of settlers, and thanks to his extensive knowledge of the territory  he works as a guide for tourists: at the start of this story, he welcomes his new client, Dr. al-Baz, a University of Arizona professor who came to Mars to prove an intriguing theory about the genetic link between Martian aborigines and Earth people.  As one of the few people who can safely approach the shatan (the name Martians use for themselves), Jim will have to convince them to donate some blood to test al-Baz’s hypothesis.

From this point on, the story moves over quite unexpected territory, and toward an equally unexpected ending: I will say no more, because it must be enjoyed free of preconceptions, and save its surprise until the very end.

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: HEAD ON (Lock In #2), by John Scalzi

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

Readers of my blog will know by now that John Scalzi is one of those authors whose books I grab almost without looking at the back cover blurb, and this was no exception, especially considering that I enjoyed its predecessor Lock In very much. Once more I found myself caught in a captivating story that expands on the previously established background: for those who have not read Lock In and the prequel novella Unlocked, Scalzi postulates that a particularly virulent strain of flu sweeps around the world killing many and leaving a percentage of the survivors locked in their own bodies – brains alive and functioning, but unable to move or to communicate with the outside world.  Haden’s Syndrome (so called from the USA First Lady, probably the most notorious victim of the virus) spurs the international community to find a way to bring the people afflicted back into contact with the rest of the world: first a neural net is devised that allows Hadens to communicate with each other in the virtual space of the Agora, then a sort of robotic, remotely controlled body (or threep) is implemented to grant them mobility and the possibility to interact with non-Hadens, leading as normal a life as possible.

Like its predecessor, Head On focuses of Chris Shane, a Haden and an FBI agent, paired with the more experienced detective Vann: after reading the first book, I discovered from online discussions that John Scalzi had left out on purpose any indication about Shane’s gender, to stress how it doesn’t necessarily define a character, or what they can do. To say the truth, while reading Lock In I thought about Chris as male for no other reason that it made sense to pair a younger, inexperienced male rookie agent with a more seasoned, more pragmatic female partner like Vann, but on hindsight I realized that it didn’t make that much of a difference in their working and interpersonal dynamic.  With this new novel I was ready to see how the lack of information on Chris’ gender would play in my perception of the story, and after a while I realized that it worked no matter what, that I cared only about Chris’ journey as the current investigation developed, and that was all that truly counted in the end.

The action starts some time after the events depicted in the previous book, and it does indeed begin with a tragic occurrence: a well-known sports player dies in mysterious circumstances during an important match, and the fact that the event is being aired and the players’ vital statistics uploaded for everyone to see, gives the start to a veritable avalanche of outlandish speculation. The match was no ordinary sports event, since it concerned Hilketa, a cross between rugby and the most ferocious gladiatorial games – a sport played by Hadens with their threeps, and one that is acquiring more and more attention not only from the Haden community, but also from the non-afflicted public and players, with increasing talk about including non-Hadens in threeps as Hilketa players.  The threeps are an important part of the game itself, since the physical damage incurred by the participants is heavy, and because one of the rules requires that a player be labeled as “goat”, and their head forcibly detached from the body so that it can be used as a score-signing part by the opponent team – clearly not something one could do with a flesh-and-blood individual.    When Duane Chapman, the rising star of the Boston Bays, loses his threep’s head for the third time in the same game, it becomes quickly clear that something is wrong with his physical body, and once he falls prey to seizures, death ensues in a matter of minutes.

How could the damage inflicted on the threep have repercussions on Chapman’s body is the first question facing the investigative team, and as Shane and Vann launch into their inquiry they discover several layers of financial and political implications underlying the structure of the Hilketa sports league, and here I must stress how John Scalzi managed to keep my attention focused on a topic that would normally not interest me, to put it mildly.  I’m not a fan of spectator sports, and often think that the hype surrounding sport events sounds somewhat exaggerated and the emphasis of commentators quite over the top, even though I acknowledge the fact that my lack of interest might play a major part in that assessment: with Head On, though, the background theme did not bother me at all, and I found any mention of Hilketa and its surrounding apparatus quite interesting, which means that the author was able to draw me in despite my issues. Well done indeed…

The most interesting part of the story, however, is the one concerned with Hadens, especially in the way they are still adapting to a continuously evolving society that has partly lost the connection with the emotional impact of their tragedy – as it happens with many instances when they become a common fact of life.  In a way, Hadens and their threeps are now an almost mundane fact of life, and the positive side of this is that there is no more question of their acceptance; on the other hand, however, this has led to the withdrawal of a good portion of government funding for afflicted people, so that many of them face economic difficulties in the maintenance of expensive threeps and in the much more costly maintenance of their immobile bodies, that still need to be cared for.  It struck me deeply to see how the threeps, while affording Hadens the chance of interacting normally with the rest of humanity, have in some way robbed the syndrome’s victims of the recognition of their basic helplessness, of their continued need for specialized medical care.

And that’s not all, because aside from ordinary and extraordinary ‘creature comforts’, so to speak, the needs of Hadens concern human companionship too, something that is denied their paralyzed bodies as well as their threep “vehicles”: there is a moment where Shane’s parents are talking with their offspring through the threep, while at the same time Chris’ mother busies herself with some hair trimming on the actual, paralyzed body, as a way of still connecting physically with her child.  In this instance Chris comments about the need for human touch that Hadens experience, the necessity to still feel connected, feel part of their families and of the outside world.  It’s a very moving moment, one where we are brought to realize, once again, how our perceptions might lead us astray and rob us, and others, of some essential connection with our fellow humans, especially when they suffer from some kind of affliction.

There are many, many layers to this story underlying the surface of the investigation on the player’s death, and they are all intriguing and thought-provoking, which is something I’ve come to expect from a Scalzi novel, and once more I was not disappointed. The pace was brisk, the humor well-balanced, the characters believable: one could not really ask for more.   Highly recommended.

My Rating: 

Reviews

Short Story Review: TETHERS, by William Ledbetter

The Baen Free Library is a section of the Baen site where a good number of books is offered for free download, as a way to sample authors and their works.  During one of my visits, I discovered the existence of a series of short stories collections, grouped by year of publication: as it often happens, anthologies can be mixed bags, but I found a few stories that truly caught my attention: in my next posts dedicated to shorter works I will review the ones that I liked most in this collection from the best of 2016.

TETHERS

Anyone who appreciated the magnificently tense Gravity will find themselves at home in this short story about people working in the depths of space and having to face a dangerous, life-threatening situation: astronauts Hartmann and Sievert are conducting some EVA repairs when Sievert, a swashbuckling loudmouth more interested in personal records than safety protocols, causes a catastrophic accident that could cost them both their lives, and Hartmann must resort to every single bit of training and ingenuity to ensure their survival.

What’s interesting here is that Hartmann comes from farmer stock, and his present situation is interspersed with recollections from the past, especially of his father, a man who had, and still has, a great influence on Hartmann’s way of thinking and on the kind of person he is: even in space, even in the midst of huge technical advancements, being a decent individual does carry its weight, and that consideration becomes quite pivotal once the two astronauts’ circumstances appear quite dire.

Unlike other similar stories about the dangers of living and working in space, this one does not offer a comforting scenario of cooperation and selflessness: on the contrary it adds to the mix the darkest leanings of human nature, and the effects they can have even on the more honorable of characters, so that Tethers becomes a truly breathless reading experience.

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: GUNPOWDER MOON, by David Pedreira

As the biggest and brightest object in Earth’s night sky, the Moon always exerted a magnetic pull on our imagination, even when we were mere primitives unable to articulate that feeling and simply awed by its sight.  I’ve often wondered what the speed of evolution for our exploration of space would have been without the presence of that big, mysterious orb in our skies…

As the Moon was the target for the first steps moved by mankind on another planetary object, so it was for many works of speculative fiction, and even now that we have touched down on it, explored portions of it and brought back samples of its rocky soil, the magic has not worn out, so that the appearance of a novel based on the Moon still fuels that inexplicable thrill that we must have inherited from our ancestors.

Gunpowder Moon is the latest work of fiction I’ve come across whose story is based on the Moon, and of course I’ve wanted to read it since first I heard of it, its main attraction the feeling of still-unexplored frontier that came across from the synopsis: toward the end of the 21st Century, mankind has established several bases on our satellite, most of them dedicated to the mining of Helium-3, employed in fusion reactors to obtain clean power.  A few decades before, an event called the Thermal Max caused massive environmental upheavals all over Earth, bringing humankind close to extinction, so that the effort of rebuilding a better planet united the survivors in a previously unknown way – hence the colonization of the Moon by all the major Earth powers, allied in the goal of moving back from the brink of annihilation and toward a better future.  Unfortunately, humans cannot listen too long to their better angels, and once the emergency is past and forgotten, they revert back to their old ways…

Caden Dechert, the main character, is a former soldier who chose to move to the Moon to find a new start, away from the conflicts and turmoils of Earth: he’s now in charge of one of the American Helium-3 mining stations, set in the Sea of Serenity.  The outposts’ routine is overturned when what looks like a tragic accident ends the life of one of the miners, and shortly after it becomes clear it was no accident but an act of deliberate sabotage.  The first evidence seems to point to the Chinese, their first competitors in the He-3 mining, and the situation quickly escalates toward a prelude to war. Not convinced about the clues he was presented, and placing his trust more on the attitude of people living on an inhospitable world than on political posturing, Dechert tries to be the voice of reason, but with little avail, so that it becomes imperative for him to get at the bottom of things and defuse the lethal deflagration that threatens to bring Earth’s old madness to his new home.

Gunpowder Moon successfully blends science fiction with politics and a murder mystery, creating a story that is quick-paced and immersive, while at the same time keeping the social and political background fairly close to our present, so that we can still recognize much of ourselves in the people depicted there.  It’s also an interesting psychological study about people living in close quarters and in a sealed environment, giving us a quick glimpse of what might be the conditions of a Lunar or Martian outpost not so many years from now, and about the kind of adaptations we humans must accept if we want to leave our home planet to colonize other worlds.

Yet, all the above, as interesting as it is, did not draw my attention as much as the… mechanics (for want of a better word) involved in living in an airless, hostile environment: I found this kind of information quite fascinating, and in the end it even took over the story itself, as if the characters’ journey were a mere background for the true protagonist, the Moon itself, which in the end overshadows the humans dwelling on it.

One of the first details we become aware of trough this story is the pervasiveness of the dust, whose gunpowder-like smell (hence the title) permeates everything, despite the accurate filtration systems.  Dust is indeed the enemy: it can clog filters, worm its way into equipment and impair its functions, sometimes with deadly results. Dust can kill you.  And where dust does not reach, there are always other dangers, like radiation, solar flares, or just plain human distraction: because, as the author reminds us, the Moon is not a place that offers second chances.

The part where this novel really shines is in the descriptions of the stark lunar landscape, a colorless world of black and white and gray that still possesses a kind of beauty almost impossible to put into words, but that can still capture one’s soul with its siren song. And if the characters are not delved into too deeply, if they sometimes appear like well-known templates – the disillusioned former soldier, the tech wizard, the short-sighted bureaucrat, and so on – this does not detract from the enjoyment of the novel, because the real character, the Moon, is depicted in all its magnificent, deadly mystery.  And it’s enough.

My Rating: 

Reviews

Short Story Review: THE LAVENDER PALADIN, by Shawn Snider

The Baen Free Library is a section of the Baen site where a good number of books is offered for free download, as a way to sample authors and their works.  During one of my visits, I discovered the existence of a series of short stories collections, grouped by year of publication: as it often happens, anthologies can be mixed bags, but I found a few stories that truly caught my attention: in my next posts dedicated to shorter works I will review the ones that I liked most in this collection from the best of 2016.

THE LAVENDER PALADIN

This was a quite unusual story, on many levels: it might be labeled as Fantasy since it depicts knights in armor and their attendants, but at the same time those knights are considered gods and addressed as “deus” by those same companions; and each of them travels with a bird-sized dragon, whose venomous bite can confer a wide range of powers.  Yet there is not indication about the origin of these ‘gods’, so that for all we know they might as well be human-looking aliens coming from a far-off world; what is certain is that they seem to be at odds with each other – at least the two portrayed in this story are, to the point that one of them is pursuing the other and not stopping at anything to capture his enemy.

The most unusual detail of The Lavender Paladin, though, is the setting: while the story follows many of the traditional guidelines of a fantasy tale, the background, the names and description of the characters and the general feel of the narrative point to an African-like context, which makes for a very different flavor – and a very welcome difference, at that, since it’s something you rarely find in this genre.

Young Nia, the main point of view of the story, is quite taken with the unexpected guests in her mother’s house, the blind god Astonaris and his paladin Kwambo, the latter wearing the titular lavender armor: the two are enjoying a moment of respite in their flight from Saegon, another god and Astonaris’ enemy, and little do they know about the consequences this visit will have on Nia’s little family.  Once they learn about them, the two men will have to decide whether to survive or do the right thing, knowing that each choice will require a price…

I was quite taken by this story, not least because I would love to learn more about this world and how it came to be: this is indeed one of those instances where a novel-sized narrative would be very welcome…

 

My Rating: