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Review: THE INVISIBLE LIBRARY, by Genevieve Cogman (The Invisible Library #1)

What a fun read this was! Novels dealing with books exert a strong appeal on a compulsive reader, and this one is no exception: what’s more, the titular Invisible Library is a fascinating entity in and of itself. First, because it’s a huge repository for incredible amounts of books, and second because of its location: the story postulates that there are many parallel realities coexisting next to one another, and the Library is located in a place belonging to none of them, a location where space and time have practically no meaning.  Dusty volumes fill up row upon row of shelves, while modern computers are strategically placed where Librarians might need them, and from the occasional window one can at times see cobble-paved streets lit by gas-lamps.  As I said, fascinating…

Irene is a junior Librarian tasked with retrieving a particular book the Library wants, and following the last phase of her planned heist drops us straight into the heart of the story, through a narrow escape from animated stone gargoyles and hounds from Hell that carries the same kind of thrill as a dive into deep waters. Here we learn one of the most important peculiarities about Librarians: they can use Language (a special speech construct that is constantly adapted and modified to suit Librarians’ needs) to force inanimate objects like door locks to obey their commands – it’s not exactly magic as we usually consider it, but it’s an interesting detail and, at times, a very useful tool.

Having managed a successful extraction from this particular alternate world, Irene looks forward to some well-earned rest to be spent doing what she enjoys most – reading books. This was what caused my instant connection with the character, even though she was not fully fleshed yet: Irene might be a thief/spy/adventuress, but above all else she is a reader, one who in the end wants only “to shut the rest of the world out and have nothing to worry about except the next page of whatever she was reading”.  The author could not have found a better way to endear her to us readers than this, indeed.

There is no rest for the weary though, and Irene’s superior Coppelia sends her on a new mission to retrieve a precious volume of Grimm’s tales from an alternate London that’s usually off-limits because of its chaos contamination, which means that magic and technology clash in unpredictable and dangerous ways. And on top of that, she must take an apprentice with her, a young man named Kai, both an unknown quantity and a departure from Irene’s usual solo missions – not to mention that Kai seems to harbor some secrets…

There is little time for Irene to dwell on all this, however, since the version of London in which the two find themselves presents several obstacles to the assignment: a late nineteenth Century alternate with steampunk overtones – think of Zeppelins and steam-powered machines – where Fae, vampires and werewolves coexist alongside normal humans. On top of that, the book Irene is looking for has just been stolen after the murder of its latest owner, and she finds herself working alongside Detective Vale (this world’s version of Sherlock Holmes) battling with steam centipedes, clockwork alligators and various other contraptions, while supernatural creatures drive forth their own agendas and a dark figure from the Library’s past – the mythical Alberich – extends his murderous shadow over everything and everyone.

This unstoppable flow of surprises and death-cheating adventures keeps the story going with good momentum and at the same time serves to flesh out Irene’s character more: what I like about her (apart from her love of books, of course) is that she’s skilled but not overconfident (unlike her previous teacher and sometimes competitor Bradamant) and she takes her mentoring duties toward Kai quite seriously, trying to avoid the mistakes Bradamant made with her, when she hogged all the praise and heaped any blame on Irene. Moreover, she’s ready to face the dangers inherent in her chosen work – and more than once, in the course of the story, she suffers damage of some sort – but she’s not reckless or stupid, nor does she fall into the “heroine needing help” narrative trap.  Irene feels quite real as a character, because she’s driven and willing to better her position in the Library, but at the same time she’s aware of her limitations and knows when to move aside in favor of people with more experience.

On the other hand, the other characters are somewhat less defined: we learn something more about Kai along the way, granted, and we get interesting glimpses about Vale and Bradamant, but they are still… in flux, so to speak, probably waiting for the next installments in the series to get some more flesh on their proverbial bones. The same happens to the concept of the Library itself: we see a few quick flashes of its long corridors filled with books, we learn that there are endless passages and junctions – and this reminded me a little of some kind of multi-dimensional puzzle in which one could get too easily lost – but we know nothing about the creation of the Library, and how it developed over the centuries, and across the worlds.  But this will probably be detailed more in the next books…

The overall mood of The Invisible Library reminded me a little of Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series: the coexistence of werewolves and vampires, the steampunk elements, the mysteries hiding behind every corner, but where Carriger’s work is a headless romp carried by tongue-in-cheek wit, Cogman’s brand of humor is more subdued and far less outrageous – unless she decides to have a refined party crashed by mechanical alligators, that is.  The light-hearted fun mixed with more dramatic events creates a good blend that makes for a swift, entertaining read: it might be a little on the thin side, as far as the plot is concerned, yet there are times when some lightness is not only welcome, but rather necessary for a change of pace, and I believe this series might become one of my go-to stories when I want to… take a breath from more intense reads.

There are a few elements that detract from the overall positive experience though: for example, the moments when the characters fall prey to the need for lengthy exposition, going over previous occurrences and recapping them in painstaking detail – to me these segments felt like wading through quicksand where a moment before I was flying on a dirigible.  And the Language – fascinating concept that it is – seems to be used too liberally, to the point that it takes on the shape of a convenient plot device rather than a tool to be employed in the direst of circumstances: as if to drive this point home, it seemed to me that Irene’s skills were brought in better light when she was momentarily unable to use Language, rather than when she wielded it as a weapon at the drop of a hat.

These little snags notwithstanding, I enjoyed The Invisible Library quite a bit, and will look forward to the next installments in the series, one that I can recommend for its high entertainment value.

My Rating: 

Short Story Review: FORSWORN, by Brian McClellan (Powder Mage 0.1)

While searching for the titles of Brian McClellan’s Powder Mage trilogy, I discovered that the author had written a number of prequel novellas, and since I’m already backtracking my steps after reading Sins of Empire, the first book in the new series set in the same background, I decided to start from a… more remote past, so to speak.

Forsworn is the first of these novellas and deals with the story of Erika ja Leora, a young noblewoman from Kez, a place where powder mages are hunted down like dangerous animals.  Erika is a powder mage herself, but her noble birth saved her from that fate: she has however taken an oath not to use her powers – the Forsworn from the title are indeed people who can wield powder magic but renounce them publicly.

The chance encounter in the woods with a runaway child, Norrine, will change Erika’s life forever: Norrine (a character I encountered as an adult Riflejack mercenary in Sins of Empire) escaped from the prison where she was being held as a powder mage, after being denounced by her own parents in exchange for money, and on meeting her Erika sees what her own fate would have been if her station had not prevented it.  Choosing to help young Norrine is an act of dangerous defiance, especially since a Privileged sorcerer is on the runaway’s trail and pursues the prey and anyone ready to help her with dogged determination.

The world being depicted here is a cruel one: of course that’s a given in this genre, but there is something more brutal at play here, especially since it highlights the strife between the more “conventional” magic of the Privileged, and that of the powder mages, with the former clearly fearing the latter’s encroachment of their position of power, especially with the ruling class.  And just how ruthless the Privileged can be becomes evident during the long chase through the mountains toward the safety of neighboring Adro, where powder mages can live without fear: Erika will need all her strength and courage to survive and escape with Norrine from the pursuit of Duke Nikslaus and the King’s Longdogs, the aptly named power mage hunters.

As a first introduction in this world, this was a very promising one, and the surprise appearance, at the very end, of a well-known character from the original trilogy was very welcome, almost like a sign I’m going to enjoy losing myself in this series.

My Rating:

Salva

Review: WITH BLOOD UPON THE SAND, by Bradley Beaulieu (Song of the Shattered Sands #2)

Given that Twelve Kings in Sharakhai was one of last year’s biggest revelations for me, I was naturally eager to read its sequel, and in that respect With Blood Upon the Sand did not disappoint, expanding on the world and characters whose foundations had been laid in the first book.

The story resumes with a high-adrenaline scene in which we see the protagonist Çeda trying to assassinate another one of the Kings ruling Sharakhai: the discovery of a terrifying piece of the puzzle she’s attempting to unravel leads to failure, and to a harrowing escape through the city’s meandering alleys she knows so well from her past as a street urchin.  It’s a great way of reconnecting to Çeda, a wonderful character that captivated me from the very start with her mixture of strength and frailties, determination and failings brought on by a sometimes too-narrow focus on her goal.

The first book was centered on Çeda’s meticulous work toward infiltrating the Blade Maidens – the elite fighters protecting the Kings – so she could be nearer the people responsible for her mother’s death, and close enough to carry out her plans for vengeance; here she has finally obtained her place among the Maidens and moves the first steps toward acceptance as her training progresses, and this causes the first cracks in her armor, raising many doubts that force Çeda to question, if not her motives, her perception of the people she has always viewed as enemies.

As a street rogue, and later as a fighter in the pits where she gained her fame as the unbeatable White Wolf, Çeda had always been able to count on the support of allies and comrades, and on the unfailing closeness of her childhood friend Emre; now she is doubly isolated, as a newcomer in an elite regiment where she has to prove herself day after day, and as a double agent needing to hide her goals, and this weighs heavily on her mind – not least because some of the overtures she receives from her fellow Maidens are sincerely offered, causing Çeda to examine herself under a different light.  This adds new, welcome facets to the character as her dilemma is complicated further by exposure to a Maiden’s daily duties, that bring Çeda to see different aspects of life in Sharakhai: for example, when the Moonless Host – a resistance movement bent on destroying the Kings, and therefore aligned in some ways with Çeda’s purpose – effects a shocking attack on the city’s Collegia scholars, she sees firsthand the suffering brought on by the Host’s actions and is forced to witness the price that others have to pay for freedom from the tyranny of the Kings, and to wonder if her need for vengeance might not have to take second place to more pressing and more important concerns.

It’s a fascinating analysis, and the kind of dilemma that many revolutionary fighters have brought to the table in the real world as well – and for Çeda the problem is compounded by a new factor: once bonded, as custom requires, with the asirim, the fell creatures used by the Kings as shock troops (where ‘shock’ and ‘terror’ are not mere words…), she learns more about their origins – one of the most staggering revelations of this story – and finds herself attuned to their pain and rage for the prolonged slavery the asirim have endured, to the point that at times she ends being controlled by those feelings instead of being the one controlling and channeling that very anger.  Loss of certainties, loss of focus, and the awareness that the world cannot be reduced to black-or-white convictions, seem to pile many doubts on Çeda’s shoulders, and as the situation becomes more complicated we learn more about the world in which the novels are set.

Once Çeda’s role in the story has been firmly established, the author widens his scope in this book to encompass other people and other places: first, the Kings come to the fore as something other than semi-mythical figures whose alliance with the gods granted them eternal life and unimaginable powers.  They are revealed here as people who don’t always work in synchrony, but rather have hidden agendas whose byzantine ramifications reach far and wide: at some point, a quite unexpected revelation changes any perceptions we might have held until then, and sheds a very different light on the way the Kings assumed power.  Never has the maxim about history being rewritten by the victors been more true…
Other players come on stage as well: the Moonless Host and its leader Macide; the powerful blood mage Hamzakiir; and old acquaintances as  Juvaan, or Rahmad with his sister in law Meryam, take on added substance and depth as they play more pivotal roles in the unfolding story.

The narrative remains as fascinating as ever, its very difference from the usual fantasy settings being the foremost quality that sets it apart from the others: the unforgiving desert surrounding the cities, the ships that travel on the sands, their sails wind-driven, the fascinating – and dangerous – creatures that people the endless waste, all contribute to paint an enthralling background that comes alive under the reader’s eyes.  Unfortunately, some of that same wind seems to elude the story’s virtual sails toward the middle of the book: more than once I found myself struggling with the pace in that section of the novel, where the momentum that had carried it so far appeared to have been mired in quicksand.  For a moment I thought – I feared – that the story might not pick up its former speed and would fall victim of the dreaded “middle book syndrome”, but to my relief the events evolved in such a way that they regained their former energy, leading to a breath-taking finale that was both exhilarating and satisfying.

Now that some of the characters, especially Çeda, have come to find themselves quite far from their planned routes, my curiosity and eagerness for the next book are at even higher levels than they were at the end of the first volume.  This is indeed a series not to be missed…

My Rating:

Salva

Novella Review: COMING TO YOU LIVE, by Mira Grant (from Rise: A Newsflesh Collection)

After I finished reading Mira Grant’s last  volume in her Newsflesh trilogy about the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse, I wanted to know more about the changed world resulting from the rising of the dead, and discovered some of the short stories she wrote to… fill in the corners of her post-apocalyptic world.

When the author announced she was going to publish a book that would gather all this material and a few new stories, I knew I had to read it: Mira Grant (the alter ego of UF writer Seanan McGuire) is an amazing storyteller and I was looking forward to more about this dystopian version of our world, either revisiting the older stories or enjoying the new ones.

This is the last one of the collection:

COMING TO YOU LIVE

This last story in the Rise collection (and the second totally new offering) will be the most difficult to review: for technical reasons, because it develops a few years after the events in the last book of the Newsflesh trilogy, and therefore it represents a massive spoiler for all those who have not read it yet; and for emotional reasons, because finding again a few familiar “faces” was both a joy and a sorrow, since a few of them don’t exactly find themselves in a happy place – not that this surprises me, knowing their history and most of all knowing this author.

So… SPOILER WARNING: read on at your own peril!  I will do my best to remain as vague as possible, but it’s not going to be easy,

Georgia and Shaun Mason have fled from the USA, after the harrowing events described in Blackout, and are now living in the Canadian wilderness.  It should be a peaceful life (well, if you don’t take into account the occasional zombie moose or other dangers…) but unfortunately it isn’t: the Masons might be very good at fighting flesh-and-blood foes, be they living or undead, but they don’t fare as well with the ghosts haunting them.    Shaun is still battling the madness that hit him after the loss suffered at the end of Feed, and although he looks like a functioning individual on the surface, he’s quite broken inside; Georgia is the victim of recurring nightmares of her time as a prisoner of the CDC, and still has trouble adjusting to her newfound freedom – and what’s worse, her… well, peculiar nature is now affecting her physical health.  The two have no other recourse but to risk travel and reach Dr. Abbey to find out what’s affecting Georgia, and cure her, if possible: once they reach the Shady Cove lab they are joined by old friends from their blogging days – at least those who are still alive – and the journey morphs into something different…

At the beginning of the novella, author Mira Grant states clearly that this comes out of her readers’ requests to know more about the Masons, and it sounds more like a challenge than a dedication: if anyone wished for a happily ever after, they are going to be sorely disappointed because – as one of the characters states at some point – “that doesn’t happen until you’re dead”.  I was not surprised to see them still fighting for their lives, although in a different way than the past, and for this same reason I’m unable to picture them living a quiet life like most ordinary people, because in the end they are NOT: their relentless search for the truth when they were highly acclaimed bloggers brought them to face endless dangers beyond those inherent in the post-Rising world, and here Georgia and Shaun are still struggling against the odds, trying in every way possible to keep death at bay, probably because their life made them that way.

Coming to You Live offers the opportunity of seeing again some of the past players, like Mahir, Maggie and Alaric, and the welcome return of Dr. Abbey with her staff (and dog), not to mention the happily mad Foxy, gives this story the flavor of a grand finale, one where the characters I’ve come to know and care for bow out before the curtain falls: I hope this will not be my last visit to this post-apocalyptic world because – as the recently published Feedback showed – there are still many stories to be told about the Rising and its aftermath.  Given that Mira Grant is a quite prolific writer, my hope does not feel so unfounded…

My Rating:

Review: CERTAIN DARK THINGS, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Vampires have been long used (and sometimes over-used) in horror/paranormal literature, so that at times it seems that nothing new can arise from that corner of the genre. Then books like Certain Dark Things come along, and new life is breathed into the concept.

For starters, this story is set in Mexico City – quite a far cry from the usual mid-European foggy wilderness one would expect whenever vampires are concerned – and this gives the novel a very peculiar quality, enhanced by the discovery that there are several kinds of vampires, each with their own unique appearance and customs: in keeping with the various world-wide legends about a blood-sucking creature that preys on humans, the novel postulates that vampires are not all alike and they don’t necessarily look like pale-faced Count Dracula.

While the existence of vampires is a well-known fact in the history of the world as depicted by the author, their presence is not tolerated everywhere, and Mexico City is indeed one of the places where they are unwelcome, with “sanitation squads” making regular checks, not unlike those of the police in a totalitarian state, to root out and deport – or exterminate – any stowaway blood-sucker.  Mexico City is, at least on the surface, a place where only drug cartels and other kinds of criminal groups can operate, but among the widespread corruption and the tired indifference of the authorities there are always dark areas where the occasional vampire can slip into the cracks.

This is what happens with Atl, the only surviving member of a clan of vampires whose roots go back to the Aztec civilization: her family was exterminated by a rival gang of Necros – which are a more “classical” variety of vampires – and she’s trying to bide her time until she can cross over to Bolivia where she will have better chances of survival.  The Godoy family, here represented by brash, young Nick with his human sidekick Rodrigo, is on Atl’s tracks with the goal of eliminating the last survivor of the competition, although Nick has a further agenda, that of exacting vengeance on her for humiliating him when she managed to escape capture.   Quite unexpectedly, Atl gains an improbable ally when she meets Domingo, a homeless teenager who survives by selling useful objects he searches for in trash dumps: at first she sees him only as a blood source and an errand runner (a “Renfield” in the vampire speak quite ironically derived from Bram Stoker), but his status will change as the danger increases and her enemies close in.  The last point of view of this quick-paced, fascinating story is represented by Ana Aguirre, a police officer trying to do her job as honorably as possible in a city where dishonesty and lack of care are the rule.

The background for Certain Dark Things is wonderfully detailed, the characters well-drawn and believable – especially the “bad guys” whose ruthlessness and lack of any moral code is drawn with the skilled finesse they require – and the whole vampire culture is an intriguing revelation, but for me the real focus of this story is young Domingo: everything revolves around him, to the point that all the other characters, on every side of the fence, acquire depths and facets only in relation to him. In a way, he is a catalyst, and as it happens with every chemical reaction, his presence changes things.

On the surface, Domingo is a discard of society, not unlike the garbage he collects in search of valuable articles: his family rejected him, the rag-tag band of street kids he first joined treated him badly, and he now lives alone in the abandoned tunnels of the subway, leading a hand-to-mouth existence that nonetheless affords him a modicum of freedom and self-respect. With these premises, one could expect him to be angry, hateful, cynical – not so: Domingo is a gentle soul full of dreams, gifted with guileless innocence and an awkward goofiness that is quite charming.  He’s fascinated by vampires and possesses a collection of graphic novels that taught him all he knows about them, or rather all he believes he knows: when he first sees Atl and her guard dog on the subway, far from realizing what she is, he simply sees a figure from those novels – a stark, black and white living illustration from those comic books, and that’s how the reader perceives her too, because Domingo is indeed our eyes and ears, allowing us to see the world through his perspective.

No one can remain indifferent to Domingo’s view of the world, nor to his loyalty: what starts as a sort of inescapable fascination for Atl, who has no other plan but to use and discard him in the fashion of her people, becomes steadfast devotion and unshakable support even in the face of mortal danger.  The harrowing few days in which Domingo and Atl try to stay one step ahead of their pursuers, while seeking the means to leave Mexico City, see the young man’s change from unprepossessing street urchin to protector and shield: where he could not find the strength to stand up to those who mistreated him in the past, he now can find it for Atl, giving himself up to whatever awaits him down the line.

There is a point when a man may swim back to shore, but he was past it. There was nothing left than to be swallowed by the enormity of the sea.

And for her part Atl cannot remain indifferent to Domingo’s attitude and starts to see him as a person, if not an equal, going against everything she has been taught and the warnings of Bernardino, the ancient, creepy Revenant who accepts to help her.  The feelings she starts to develop toward Domingo don’t come out of the blue but stem from the realization that, being alone and the last of her clan, she needs not follow the ancient rules but can forge some new ones, be a law unto herself.  Even Bernardino, for all his ancient cunning and the dire warnings he imparts on Atl, seems to recognize something in Domingo, a quality that distances him from mere food and cannon fodder: there is a hint of acknowledgement, almost respect, in the old vampire that remains unexpressed but is however there.

At some point, during the course of the novel, the fascination exerted by vampires on human is likened to the attraction of the moth to a flame: in the same way, the reader is irresistibly drawn into this story, caught by the relentless pace of the action and held there by the fascinating characters and their journey.  An amazing find, indeed.

My Rating:

Review: THE BOY ON THE BRIDGE, by M.R. Carey

I received this novel from Orbit Books, in exchange for an honest review.

When I heard that M.R. Carey was writing another novel in the same world he created for The Girl With All the Gifts, I was quite thrilled: post-apocalyptic scenarios are always fascinating, and this author had already delivered a compelling, chillingly believable one on the premise of an infection by  the parasitic fungus Cordyceps, that turned affected humans into a sort of zombies, or “hungries”.

This new novel is set a few years before the events of its predecessor, and shows the changed world in wider details, although it shares the same enclosed, claustrophobic feeling of its companion story: here a mixed crew of military and scientists travels across devastated Britain on board an armored vehicle, the Rosalind Franklin (or “Rosie”), following the tracks of a previous expedition that never made it back to the relatively safe haven of Beacon.  Rosie’s crew is tasked with the retrieval of the tissue cultures left by their unfortunate colleagues, in the hope of gleaning some information that might lead to a cure for the Cordyceps plague.

The difficult interaction between the science team and the soldiers escorting them is not helped by the cramped conditions aboard Rosie, a mix between a tank and a mobile lab, while the lack of any appreciable results in the search sets a pall of hopelessness over the general mood. The divide between the two groups is further stressed by the different personalities of their respective leaders, forced to share command of the expedition: colonel Carlisle is a tainted hero of the Breakdown, the time when the plague effectively ended civilization, and he’s weighted down by the memories of what he had to do under orders; while doctor Fournier is a mix between scientist and bureaucrat, more the latter than the former in truth, and a man with scarce-to-absent people skills.

Further friction comes from the presence of the youngest member of the team, teenaged Stephen Greaves: he’s an orphan possessed of a brilliant, if disturbed, mind – despite his young age he’s the inventor of the blocking gel that hides humans’ scent from the keen sense of smell of the hungries, but his introvert, almost autistic behavior had the crew nicknaming him “the Robot”.  The only person truly close to him, and the one who insisted on his presence for the expedition, is doctor Samrina Kahn, who has somehow adopted Stephen and managed to establish with him a relationship based on mutual trust.  Kahn, however, is now plagued by a problem that might prove damaging for the mission and everyone’s safety: she discovered she’s pregnant…

Where The Girl With All the Gifts dealt with the interaction between the uninfected humans and a group of second-generation contaminated children still in possession of their mental faculties, here the focus is solely on humans; and if the first novel was set in a time in which the Breakdown was already one generation removed, here it’s still a fresh, painful memory: people still remember vividly the life they led before, and this adds to their behavior a poignancy that was almost absent in the people managing the base where Melanie and her companions were being studied. The world that was is dramatically present in the awareness of these survivors, allowing the readers to see more about its collapse and the birth of the new, fragile attempt at a new society that is still in the throes of its birth.

It would be legitimate to believe, or hope, that in the face of such a tragedy the remnants of humanity would regroup and form a more cohesive community, but that’s indeed wishful thinking, as the coalitions aboard Rosie – and the political maneuvering in Beacon – show with tragic clarity: even in the face of mass extinction individuals look for more power, or the assertion of their worth; for supreme leadership or the meaningless praise of academia. The end of this world might be hastened by the Cordyceps infection, but its people can inflict just as much harm as the hordes of hungries roaming the land.

As with the first novel, hope seems to reside with younger people: here much rests on the shoulders of Stephen Greaves, a teenager whose brilliance is offset by enormous difficulties in interacting with others, either physically or verbally – and the brief flashes about his past leave us wondering weather his condition was congenital or the result of the horrifying event that orphaned him. That same removal, however, is coupled with great powers of observation that enable him to somehow figure out his traveling companions and to adopt behavioral patterns that allow him to coexist with them in the stifling confines of Rosie.  Stephen ultimately becomes the interface between the humans and the new breed of children born after the plague’s spread, feral creatures that are nonetheless able to create societal rules and to work together – he does not truly belong with either group, and therefore is the one who can attempt to bridge the gap: I’ve wondered more than once if this was the real meaning of the book’s title, rather than the one offered by the circumstances of Stephen’s rescue…

Although Stephen figures prominently in the story, the overall mood of the novel is choral, as the various events are observed through the eyes of several of Rosie’s crew, and this multi-faceted observation helps move the story along especially in the first part of the book, where the going looks a little slow and not much seems to happen: the characters come across in sharp definition and the frictions that move through Rosie like unstable currents make this novel just as much a study of human psychology as a post-apocalyptic drama.  Once events start rolling, though, they move at a steady, unrelenting pace toward the final showdown, one that kept me on the edge of the proverbial seat because I was aware of the multiplicity of scenarios that could come into being: what really happens in the end is filled with such moving intensity that I could not help being affected by it, and I realized it was an even more powerful ending than the one of The Girl With All the Gifts.

And as if that were not enough, there is an even more compelling epilogue where the past represented by this story meets the “present” of Melanie’s story and segues into the future, tying all the narrative threads into an amazing, awe-inspiring finale.   Should Mr. Carey choose to return to this world for more stories, I will be more than delighted to read them…

My Rating: 

Novella Review: ALL THE PRETTY LITTLE HORSES, by Mira Grant (from RISE: A Newsflesh Collection)

After I finished reading Mira Grant’s last  volume in her Newsflesh trilogy about the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse, I wanted to know more about the changed world resulting from the rising of the dead, and discovered some of the short stories she wrote to… fill in the corners of her post-apocalyptic world.

When the author announced she was going to publish a book that would gather all this material and a few new stories, I knew I had to read it: Mira Grant (the alter ego of UF writer Seanan McGuire) is an amazing storyteller and I was looking forward to more about this dystopian version of our world, either revisiting the older stories or enjoying the new ones.

This week I will explore ALL THE PRETTY LITTLE HORSES

In the introduction to this story, Mira Grant describes it as “one of the most difficult, emotionally challenging pieces I’ve sat down to write” and I immediately understood what she meant once I started reading: in the prequel story Countdown we follow several individuals’ plight as the Kellis-Amberlee virus starts spreading, and two of them are Michael and Stacy Mason – the adoptive parents of Georgia and Shaun, the main characters of the Newsflesh trilogy.

In the last scene dedicated to the senior Masons, their small child Phillip is going near a neighbor’s dog that has been infected by a raccoon’s bite: little Phillip approaches his four-legged friend addressing it with his usual “Oggie?”, and that chilling flash is all we need to understand what is going to happen to him.

As “All the Pretty Little Horses” opens four years elapsed and the worst of the Rising has taken its course, while the world is trying to pick up the pieces and to find a way to get back on track.  Stacy Mason does not care about it all though: once the emergency was over, she asked to be punished for having killed her infected son, but when the law did not (and could not) find her guilty she fell into deep depression.   Worried about her, her husband Michael finds a way to pull her out of it by managing to attach the two of them to the army contingent tasked with exploring the Oakland Zoo: it’s while Stacy is taking pictures of the premises that Michael realizes the best way to help his wife is to put her once more in the thick of things, just as they were while they organized the Berkeley enclave to hold on until help arrived.  Stacy thrives in dangerous situations, and so Michael finds a way for them to seek those situations and document them: we can see the birth of the blogging culture that’s at the center of the Newsflesh trilogy here, and how it starts as a way to deal with emotional trauma.

The loss of a child would be emotionally devastating in any situation, but the way Stacy Mason had to face her tragedy adds several layers of pain and guilt that no rationalization is going to erase: as usual, Mira Grant lays out her characters’ souls and their suffering in what I like to call a stark, utilitarian way, and in so doing she confers to these emotions a poignancy and hurtful directness that others not always manage to achieve.   What is fascinating here is the observation of the long struggle of the world to come out of the ashes of the Rising, and the way it mirrors the equally agonizing journey of the Masons toward a new way to deal with their past and the uncertain future before them.

Where Countdown was the story of how the Rising came to be, All the Pretty Little Horses shows the aftermath of it, the birth of a new world where the dead can walk: in a way these two novellas are like the bookends for the origin story of this alternate world, while this one holds many of the seeds of the larger tale that will become the Newsflesh series.  The tapestry, for want of a better word, takes even more shape and substance and, despite the pain and loss that run among the threads, remains a fascinating story.

My Rating: 

Review: THE GATES OF HELL, by Michael Livingston (The Shards of Heaven #2)

Through The Shards of Heaven, the first book in this series, I discovered a new sub-genre I enjoy quite a bit: historical fantasy, a way to blend entertaining reading with some real history – and to pique one’s curiosity about learning more about the time period in which the story is set. For these reasons I was more than looking forward to continuing with Michael Livingston’s series, and The Gates of Hell did not disappoint.

A few years have elapsed since the fall of Alexandria and the conquest of Egypt by Rome: after the deaths of Cleopatra and Mark Antony, their children are either dead, in hiding or, like Selene, prisoners of Octavian, now self-styled Caesar Augustus, emperor. Selene Cleopatra, has been taken into Octavian family’s fold and married off to Juba II, son of the deceased king of Numidia, a double tie that should keep her under control.  But Selene being Selene, she remains quite unbowed and although her marriage to Juba proves to be a happy one – where respect and friendship quickly turn into love – the need for vengeance is never far from her thoughts, doubly so because in this as well she finds a kindred spirit in her husband.  With the help of the Shards they acquired – the Aegis of Zeus that Juba obtained in Alexandria, and the one hidden into a statue Selene stole from the temple of the Vestals – they work to master the power of the artifacts, with the goal of one day bring about the destruction of Rome.

Meanwhile, in Alexandria, Cesarion – son of Cleopatra and Julius Caesar, and Selene’s half-brother – has gone deep underground to avoid capture and to help preserve the very powerful Shard hidden inside the Ark of the Covenant. When former legionnaire Vorenus visits the Head Librarian Didymus to inquire about the Ark’s apparent loss of power, their conversation is overheard by disgruntled ex librarian Thrasyllus, who concocts a plan to put himself in Didymus’ exalted position and gain the favor of the Roman occupants.

These are the main narrative threads at the heart of Gates of Hell, and they carry the story forward at a steady pace while expanding on the characters we met in Book 1: the preferred focus is on Selene and Juba, of course, and their increasing mastery of the Shards in their possession. There is an intriguing form of character osmosis – for want of a better word – between the two of them: Juba has become more reflexive, more inclined to think his way through and to consider every possible facet of a problem, while Selene has lost some of her merry-go-lucky youthful attitude (which is understandable, considering the heart-rending losses she endured) and she is the one who seems to be goading her husband toward their shared objective.

What’s truly fascinating is the change in Octavian: I remarked on his cold cruelty in my review of Book 1, and how different he looked there in respect of the image that has come to us through time. I wondered if, in his case, the author was stressing the concept about history being written – and therefore shaped – by the victors. That’s why I was surprised to see a softer side of the newly crowned emperor, that of a man who cares about the people he calls family and is very aware of the sacrifices he might call them to accept in the name of the grand dream he nurtures, that of a huge, peaceful empire.   This change, one that comes along in small, organic increments until it blossoms into an amazingly selfless act, was not only a surprise for me as a reader but also for the character of Juba, who starts to question his and Selene’s goal of vengeance and to lean toward a different path:

Was the Peace of Rome a truly horrible dream? Or was it perhaps something real, something tangible that was worth setting aside their need to avenge the fallen members of their families?

Some harrowing circumstances cause both Juba and Selene to review their stance and to accept a more peaceful path for their future, a fresh start that will allow them to forget the pain and loss in their past. But if Octavian has mellowed out in this second volume of the series, another historical figure – that of Tiberius – has taken the role of the antagonist here, and it will be the long reach of his actions that will determine the developments of the last part of the book, where the meaning of the title becomes horribly clear.   As Selene and Juba battle with their inner demons (and not only those), Caesarion and his steadfast allies Vorenus and Pullo face a different kind of danger that will climax in a bloody battle fraught with heartbreaking losses.

The Gates of Hell proved to be a swift, sometimes breathless read, and it certainly paves the way for some huge developments: there were some… hiccups along the way, like the author’s need to involve his characters in long philosophical discussions that were certainly interesting but that somehow broke the rhythm of the story; or the often-repeated information about the Shards, that at times sounds just a little pedantic.  But apart from these very small blemishes, I enjoyed the book very much and I’m now waiting for the next installment with great expectation.

My Rating: 

Novella Review: SAN DIEGO 2014 – THE LAST STAND OF THE CALIFORNIA BROWNCOATS, by Mira Grant (from RISE: A Newsflesh Collection)

After I finished reading Mira Grant’s last  volume in her Newsflesh trilogy about the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse, I wanted to know more about the changed world resulting from the rising of the dead, and discovered some of the short stories she wrote to… fill in the corners of her post-apocalyptic world.

When the author announced she was going to publish a book that would gather all this material and a few new stories, I knew I had to read it: Mira Grant (the alter ego of UF writer Seanan McGuire) is an amazing storyteller and I was looking forward to more about this dystopian version of our world, either revisiting the older stories or enjoying the new ones.

This week is the turn of SAN DIEGO 2014: THE LAST STAND OF THE CALIFORNIA BROWNCOATS

This is the most terrifying and at the same time the most poignant of the stories about the Rising, and if anything it was more difficult to bear on re-reading than it was the first time – not because I already knew what was going to happen, but because knowing that, I was able to focus on other details, the ones where human frailty and courage took center stage.

Here Mira Grant imagines what would happen at the start of the zombie apocalypse in a place as crowded as a sci-fi convention (in the specific case, San Diego’s Comic Con), and she aptly terms it “the perfect recipe for chaos”.  The title takes inspiration from a very real group of people, the California Browncoats (from the delightful, unfortunate tv show Firefly), a non-profit organization that promotes charity fundraising at Comic-Con.  My own sole experience of a sci-fi convention – and a very small one at that – helped me visualize the scenes in this story, and that made it even more harrowing…   

In the summer of 2014, when the Kellis-Amberlee virus starts running rampant, killing people and bringing back the dead, all seems normal for the people attending the annual Comic Con convention in San Diego: little do they know that hell will break loose and in a matter of hours the convention center will transform into a slaughterhouse.  This story runs on two time tracks, one following the events at the convention as they happen, and one from 30 years in the future, when Mahir Gowda (a welcome return from the Newsflesh trilogy) interviews the only survivor of the carnage.  It’s mostly a story of ordinary people forced to face extraordinary events and doing their best to cope with a situation no one would ever have imagined, and there are acts of true heroism standing side by side with the inevitable terror and panic following on the heels of the outbreak.

It’s a very powerful account, one that employs with great success the image of a huge, enclosed space plunged in semi-darkness, where the living and the undead move among the stalls – some of them transformed into makeshift barricades – in a sort of modern transposition of Dante’s Inferno. The story does not only mark the beginning of the end for the world as we know it, but also underlines the loss of the most precious commodity humanity can enjoy: innocence.  In Mira Grant’s own words: “We are incapable of imagining a return to a world where we could abandon all care and spend a week living in a fantasy.”

I don’t believe I will be able to ever attend any convention without thinking about this story….

My Rating: 

Review: LUNA: WOLF MOON, by Ian McDonald (Luna #2)

“We fight and we die up there; we build and we destroy, we love and we hate and live lives of passion beyond your comprehension and not one of you down here cares.”   (Lucas Corta)

One of my most awaited titles for this year was the sequel to the amazing Luna: New Moon by Ian McDonald, that for me had represented a double discovery – a great story and a new-to-me author who captured my imagination with his representation of a complex and merciless society established on the Moon.  When Luna: Wolf Moon came out I did now waste any time in acquiring and reading it, and indeed it was worth the year-long wait. For those who plan on reading it, this review is as spoiler-free as humanly possible…

The colony established on Earth’s Moon has thrived and expanded, in the span of a few decades, into a microcosm society ruled by the Five Dragons, the families who have created their own resources-based empires: the Mackenzies mine the surface in search of rare metals; the Suns deal with software and technology; the Asamoahs are the food growers; the Vorontsovs run the transport systems; and the late-comers Cortas extract the precious Helium3 that keeps the lights running on Earth.  These five families have been at each other’s throats – albeit in a subtle and apparently civilized way – since forever, despite the intermarriages that should have cemented a sort of truce and instead only managed to fuel rivalries and hatred, yet for some time the status quo prevailed until the Mackenzies decided to take matters into their own hands and brutally attacked the Cortas in order to erase them from the face of the Moon.

And so the first book ended, in a mass slaughter that made Martin’s infamous Red Wedding appear like a church picnic, and Luna: Wolf Moon opens some eighteen months later: the few surviving Cortas have either gone into hiding or adopted a very low profile, while the Mackenzies have taken over their rivals’ business and destroyed their enclave, Joao de Deus, in a ruthless tabula rasa operation that speaks volumes about the conquerors’ determination of sending their adversaries into oblivion.  Yet the Cortas are not truly finished because Lucas, one of the surviving heirs of matriarch Adriana, decides to undergo the grueling and potentially lethal training that will allow him to travel to Earth, where he intends to collect the necessary resources and allies to effect a comeback and vanquish the Mackenzies.  And as an added point of interest, the latter are not exactly enjoying their victory, because an inner war for power has started…

To say that I totally relished my return to McDonald’s Moon would be a massive understatement: there is so much in this story to hold my attention – apart from the plot about which I will say no more, because it must be appreciated on its own: the social structure created on the Moon is a fascinating exercise in imagination, as is the frame of mind of the people who have made their home there; and then there are the characters, the majority of which are not people one can easily admire, but are still so fascinating that they kept me glued to the pages not in spite of their shortcomings, but because of them.   The society on Luna seems divided into two neat halves, those who wield power and have the means to live comfortably, and those who work for them and are seemingly locked in a precarious situation, subject to the whims and moods of the Dragons and their families.  There appears to be no middle class as we intend it, and that’s somewhat puzzling – unless the author chose not to mention these people because they were not functional to the economy of the story…

The civilization that grew up on the Moon as the small settlements expanded is a very peculiar one, not exactly lawless (even though the strongest usually prey on the most vulnerable and no one ever raises their voice to object), but rather… anarchic, for want of a better word: you could say that it was the environment that made the rules, not its dwellers, and since Luna is the proverbial harsh mistress, weakness cannot be tolerated there, not in a place whose very nature is focused on killing you with cold, lack of air and water, or unshielded radiation.  Luna is one giant factory geared toward the production of energy and precious materials, where law and fairness have no place or, as one character says at some point:

We’re not a nation state, we’re not a democracy robbed of the oxygen of freedom. We’re a commercial entity. We’re an industrial outpost. We turn a profit. All that’s happened is a change of management. And the new management needs to get the money flowing again.

If the characters are not exactly sympathetic, one cannot avoid feeling invested in their journey, be it one of discovery of oneself, like it happens with Wagner Corta, the man who feels the influence of the waxing and waning Earth as a werewolf of legend felt that of the Moon; or one of vengeance, like the true descent into hell of Lucas Corta, who braves the crushing gravity of his mother’s planet of origin to find the means to restore his family’s power – and there lies one of the best features of the book, the terse descriptions of Lucas’ brutal training and the nightmarish torture of living under six times one’s weight, sustained only by the iron will that’s part of his family’s heritage.

Ian McDonald’s writing is economical, almost stark at times, with no concession to flowery descriptions, and yet it manages to depict the savage, terrifying beauty of the lunar surface, or the most shocking of circumstances with effective clarity, to place his readers right there where events are occurring, and to see them clearly with their minds’ eye.  Lucas Corta’s fight with gravity that I mentioned above is indeed a case in point, the man’s agony portrayed with a cinematic quality that at the same time makes you physically share in the pain he undergoes, all this underlined by a parallel description of the music he listens to as a form of distraction and support, the staccato delivery of the narrative in perfect sync with the music’s rhythm.

And if the writing is outstanding, the story itself is compelling: it jumps from character to character, from location to location, in a perpetual motion that leaves you no time to catch your breath, much like the lunar version of the parkour runners defying injury and death even in the reduced gravity of the Moon. It’s a story told by many voices, examined from different perspectives, and in the end it makes it clear that it’s much bigger than the sum of its parts.  And speaking of ends, this book should have been the second in a duology, and in fact there’s no indication it will be followed by others, but there are too many evolving threads, too many open issues still on the table, that I don’t want to consider the possibility this will be the last time I’ll visit this world.

Please, Mr. McDonald… can we have another book – or more?

My Rating: