Reviews

Review: ARTEMIS, by Andy Weir

I received this book from the publisher through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

My first experience with Andy Weir’s writing, his acclaimed The Martian, did not work out well: although the story’s potential was amazing (as testified by the huge success of the movie inspired by the novel), the delivery failed to engage me, and the book ended up in my ‘unfinished’ pile.  Still, I’m a great believer in second opportunities, and when the first synopsis for Artemis surfaced, I was intrigued enough to give it a try: this time around, things went a great deal better…

Artemis is the first (and so far the only) organized community on the Moon, a collection of interconnected domes named after famous astronauts: the city, with a resident population of around two thousand people of varied ethnicity, is mostly an industrial settlement and a tourist resort – a place with few written laws and a good number of unwritten ones.  Jasmine “Jazz” Bashara is a young woman of Saudi descent, the daughter of a respected welder she had a falling out with some time prior to the start of the story: Jazz works as a porter, a low-income occupation she uses as a front for her smuggling operations, and it’s because of her non-official job that she becomes involved in an industrial take-over scheme that suddenly morphs into a bloody gang war, turning her into a target for both the police and the members of a ruthless Brazilian cartel.

The pace is lively, carried by Jazz’s mordant, impudent tone, while the city of Artemis comes alive before our eyes thanks to her first-person narrative, whose scientific explanations (clearly the main staple of Andy Weir’s storytelling method) come across as lightly informative rather than pedantic: unlike what happened with Mark Whatney’s voice logs, Jazz ideally talks with the audience rather that at them, and this made a huge difference for me as far as my connection with the character was concerned.  The mechanics of living in microgravity, and in a hostile, airless environment, are explained in a discursive manner that makes it sound more like an interesting chat between acquaintances than a pedantic lecture – one of the most fascinating pieces of information being the effect of reduced gravity on the boiling point of water and therefore the temperature (and taste) of hot beverages.

Another characteristic Jazz seems to share with Whatney is her flippancy, with the difference (from my point of view) that with her it works well and it feels natural, an integral part of her psychological makeup, and what’s more it suits the character and the situations she finds herself in, while that same cheekiness sounded wrong for Whitney and his dilemma. Moreover, the book’s chapters are interspersed with the mail correspondence Jazz starts as a child with an Earth boy, Kelvin, and through these exchanges we learn much about her back-story without need for lengthy infodumps. There is a not-so-subtle veneer of pain and resentment underlying Jazz’s character, a dark side that she seems to have accepted and makes jokes about, but at the same time you can feel it places her apart from everyone else, a remoteness that seems more a form of defense than a real wish for solitude.   

I guess it all boils down to the youthful transgression that caused the rift with her father, an event that still preys heavily on her mind and must be the reason Jazz constantly refuses to employ her remarkable skills to better herself: there are several instances, throughout the book, in which people point at her above-average intelligence and wonder – to her extreme annoyance – why she remains attached to what is essentially a menial job, when she could fare much better with work she’s more skilled at.  It’s easy to imagine it might be a form of self-inflicted punishment – unexpressed as it remains – that coupled with her sense of fairness, and her peculiar moral code, quickly endeared her to me despite the brash surface appearance Jazz presents.

Here, though, also lies my main contention with this story: as an independent, self-sustaining woman, Jazz exerts that freedom in many areas of her life, including her sexuality, something that is not at all strange in our present time, nor should it be in the near future period –  and frontier location – where Artemis is set, since the absence of Earth-style laws or morals allows that freedom in all its different declinations. As an example of that liberal mindset, we are told about a couple of siblings engaged in an incestuous relationship that chose to emigrate to the Moon to avoid condemnation for their life choices.  So, why does practically everyone have to remark on Jazz’s past and present promiscuousness? Why is she targeted as the Red Woman from Babylon, in a place where you can do almost anything as long as you observe strict airlock safety?   It’s a small thing, granted, but still it bothered me like an itching nose in a spacesuit…

Still, it’s a very minor quibble, and the story itself more than makes up for it, especially in the breath-stopping (literally…) final segment, where the words “compulsive reading” become quite appropriate.  As my second attempt at Andy Weir’s writing, Artemis worked like a charm and the news that it’s already been optioned for a movie picture made me eager to see how this one will translate to the big screen: hopefully they will find an actress that will do Jazz the justice she deserves.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Short Story Review: THE DEBT OF THE INNOCENT, by Rachel Swirsky

My search for interesting short stories (and a quick sample of authors who are new to me) continues, thanks to the archives of online magazines.  This week is the turn of:

THE DEBT OF THE INNOCENT, by Rachel Swirksy

(click on the link above to read the story)

This is one of the most chilling, most terrifying stories I read, and the horror does not come from monsters, alien invasions or deadly plagues, but from the cold calculation exerted on the right to live based on available resources that’s at the core or the story itself.

In the world depicted in Rachel Swirsky, one that does not seem very far in time from the one we’re living in, the energy crisis requires severe rationing of electricity: no more lights or computers kept on all day long, private cars a memory of the past, plane trips a luxury for the very rich.  This need to regulate energy expenditures extends to all sectors of society, hospitals included, and here is where the shock hits, because the author postulates that in any hospital neonatal care is restricted to a given number of incubators, and that occupancy is controlled by the ability of parents to pay for the energy outlay necessary to keep their babies alive.  It they can’t, the child is “displaced”, i.e. removed from the incubator and left to die so that their place can be taken by a baby whose parents’ solvency is more secure.

Even more terrifying than this premise is the acquiescence that becomes apparent from the characters’ reactions, as if that were an acceptable price to pay while the world re-builds its energy output and tries to go back to previous standards.  This compliance seems to come from the acknowledgment from the more fortunate that someone else will have to suffer the consequences, that there is “a luckless, down-at-heel class the majority can look down on and think ‘at least that isn’t me’. And as long as that balance remains, the deplorable policy of killing infants for watts will continue.”

Given recent news on the subject of health care, this story resonates both as a warning and an accusation, an admonition toward thinking about the long-range consequences of today’s decisions, and the impact they can have on the not-so-distant future.

Blunt, distressing and to the point – viciously so.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Short Story Review: LADY ANTHEIA’S GUIDE TO HORTICULTURAL WARFARE, by Seanan McGuire

 

LADY ANTHEIA’S GUIDE TO HORTICULTURAL WARFARE

(click on the link to read the story on Lightspeed Magazine)

 

Think about “The Day of the Triffids” blended with “The War of the Worlds” and “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” on a steampunk background: this is what this story made me think about, even though there is much, much more to it.  These concepts, handled by the deliciously evil writing skills of Seanan McGuire, have created the tale of an invasion that is also a commentary on human flaws, poking fun at our ingrained short-sightedness.

Told in the style of a 19th Century memoir from a lady of high breeding, it recounts the invasion and conquest of Earth by an alien race of… vegetables, and if the premise makes you smile, think again, because if the tone of the account is deceptively gracious and civilized, the reality it depicts comes across as efficiently brutal, and it chilled me to the bone.

The first wave of the invasion by what will be later termed “The Vegetable Empire” starts with the arrival of seeds all over the world: the only one who manages to thrive lands in 19th Century England in the garden of Sir Arthur Blackwood, the royal botanist – and promptly proceeds to eat Sir Arthur’s sister’s maid, taking on her appearance and memories.  Far from being appalled by what happened, the Blackwoods take the seedling into their circle, as a novelty and a subject of polite study, even bestowing on her the name of Lady Antheia, from the goddess of flowers. As Antheia later writes in her memoirs, “better had my first encounter with humanity been a man, and not a woman of low station with no family to mourn her. Better for who, I cannot say”.  The lack of a shocked reaction to Antheia’s method of interaction with humans is commentary enough on the period’s regard for household help and of their short-sightedness about the creature they have welcomed into their midst with little or no thought for her true, blood-thirsty nature: after all, Antheia comments, all they see is “the very flower of English womanhood, with my curves trained to the corset’s embrace and my skirts hanging full and demure down past my ankles”.  She looks like a woman, therefore she can offer no threat, can she?

When six years later the bulk of the invading army arrives, England and the rest of Earth are unprepared for the assault, not understanding how their perceived superiority in culture, breeding and arms (that include airships and ray guns and so forth) seems to melt in the face of a veritable shower of seeds that cover the ground and start sprouting invaders, with appalling results.  As a shocked Sir Arthur is forced to accompany Antheia to the Queen to negotiate a surrender, he struggles to wrap his mind around the incursion, and Antheia’s reply forces him to consider what the British Empire has done until that very moment, taking resources they wanted and needed: “that’s the first reason you did what you did, and that’s the first reason we do what we do”.

As always, Seanan McGuire’s writing skills make this story shine in a delightful way, not in spite but because of the main character’s personality: even if your are not a reader partial to shorter works, I would recommend reading this one for the amazing experience that it is.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: THE RED HOURGLASS (Slaves of the New World #1), by Ashley Capes

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

I’ve often reviewed the works of Australian author Ashley Capes, whose writing range goes from fantasy to magical mystery to (albeit mild) horror: this time he’s tackling another genre, steampunk – but with a touch of magic thrown into the mix.

The siblings Mia and Thomas are running from pursuers across a desert landscape: they just buried their deceased old protector and guide David, and their prospects look quite bleak, since over the horizon a dust cloud signals the approach of the hunters looking for them.  Mia and Thomas are escaped slaves, the condition indicated by the hourglass tattoo on their arms: in this future or alternate history, slavery has returned – at least in Australia, so that the country has been isolated from the rest of the world because of this – and the siblings were the property of self-proclaimed King Williams, who wants them back because of their special gifts.

The clues in the narrative point to a classic steampunk background: steam-powered vehicles, the mention of airships (although this particular technology seems to have been lost by the ruling dynasty) and so on, and yet there are a few tantalizing mentions of a more advanced past, one that has now become more legend than actual memory. On top of that, however, there is magic: Mia shows a sort of precognitive ability, paired with her almost total blindness, and the knack of summoning a powerful creature with destructive powers; while later on Thomas discovers an affinity for steel, which he can bend or break with the sole strength of his muscles.

The world in which they move is an intriguing one: even though it’s not immediately mentioned, we soon understand the action is based in Australia – if the author’s origins were not an obvious clue, there is at one point a mention of an iron fountain shaped like a kangaroo to make this clear. The country appears different from the one we all know, the desert encroaching on the fewer livable spaces, red dust creeping forward like a tide that covers abandoned cities and chokes everything and everyone.  It’s not clear what happened, but at some point major environmental and political upheavals must have combined to create the present situation, one that nobody in power seems to care about.

As the two siblings run for their life and freedom, while searching for answers about the past they seem not to remember – including the bewildering changes worked on them by the mysterious Alchemist, something they have no memory of, as well – we get to know this cruel, harsh world and its few islands of respite, like the colony established by former slaves on the shores of the ocean, or the rebel camp where a handful of fighters tries to subvert the rule of King Williams’ dynasty, or the freemen of the mangrove village no one seems to know about.    I have to admit that these proved something of a frustration to me, because they were more like fleeting glimpses rather than deeper explorations of these enclaves, where I might have learned more about the past and the events that brought on the current situation.  The same happens with King Williams’ capital city, a place of hard labor in the smoke-belching factories and of fear of terrible retribution for those who cross the ruler’s wishes: I would have loved to know more, and to see more than the quick peeks the novel afforded.

On the other hand, this is a story carried by motion, the constant, running motion of the two fugitives trying to stay at least one step ahead of their pursuers, so I understand how it would have been difficult to… stop and smell the roses, so to speak: still there is that nagging voice, asking for more, that is not so easily silenced. My hope is that the next installments in the series will shed more light on the whole scenario and bring about a few answers as well.

As an introduction to this world, The Red Hourglass is an intriguing offering that promises to develop into a quite exciting story, one whose follow-up I’m looking forward with great interest.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Novella Review: HOPE’S END (Powder Mage #4), by Brian McClellan

Another prequel story from Brian McClellan’s Powder Mage world: this one does not focus on Tamas directly, but rather sees him through the eyes of his subordinates, in particular Captain Verundish, a field officer.  At the beginning of the story Verundish is contemplating suicide: a letter she received from her philandering husband requests she divorce him, so he will be able to marry his mistress. Since it might be difficult for Verundish to grant him a divorce, or rather impossible, since her father – a minister of the faith – married them and he’s opposed to the idea of breaking a sacred bond, she should kill herself to free him – otherwise he will sell their daughter into slavery.  With this kind of threat hanging over the child, Verundish has every intention of ending her life to save her daughter, but the appearance of Captain Constaire – a fellow office and her lover – forces he to postpone her plan.

Constaire has been chosen to lead a “Hope’s End” attack against the stronghold of Darjah, a Gurlish city besieged by the Adran army, under the command of General Tamas: this kind of attack, as the name suggests, is nothing but a suicide mission to breach the wall and open the way to the bulk of the army, and the man wonders whether Tamas wants him dead, since Constaire is noble-born, and everyone knows that Tamas is not fond of people buying their army commissions rather than earning them in the field.   Her lover’s plight gives however Verundish an idea to solve her problem: if she were to lead the attack, and die in the battle, she will be a hero and her daughter would be safe forever…

With this story I realized something, that with Brian McClellan it’s easy, very easy, to grow fond of characters in a very short time, and Verundish is a case in point: a woman who is a capable warrior and at the same time a victim of circumstances and – probably – of warped customs.  If society allows her to enlist in the army and actively participate in campaigns, on the other hand it leaves her at the mercy of a vile husband who would be allowed to sell their own offspring to slavers: there is something twisted, and horribly wrong at work here, something that made me like her instantly as she battled with her options with lucid despair.  Moreover, her lover Constaire appears something of a whiner, and his attitude toward the orders he just received made me wonder if, with them, Tamas wanted exactly to “test his mettle”, and if he had just failed the test…

Through Verundish’s eyes we see Tamas not just as a character in the story, but as the man his soldiers know: a stern, uncompromising man who still has a few axes to grind against society, although he’s very aware of his own shortcomings, especially when he sees them mirrored in others: “Sometimes I envy those men who don’t let pride cloud their judgment”.  The more I get to understand him better, the more I’m eager to retrace my steps in the series and sees how the main story develops.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: PROMISE OF BLOOD (Powder Mage #1), by Brian McClellan

When a few years ago I saw this book mentioned on one of the periodic showcase posts on John Scalzi’s blog, I was immediately intrigued and did not waste any time in seeing for myself what this novel was about. Despite enjoying both the story and the writing, however, I never managed to move forward with the series, rekindling my interest only when a couple of months ago Orbit Books offered me the chance of reading and reviewing the first volume in Brian McClellan’s new series, Sin of Empire.    

On hindsight, I believe I now understand the reasons for my procrastinating, but they have been completely vanquished by this author’s new novel and the fresh enthusiasm for his world engendered both by Sins of Empire and some of the prequel novellas I’ve read since then.  So it was only fitting that I start again with the first book in the Powder Mage series, and I must admit that re-reading Promise of Blood, after getting to know better some characters and their background, was a much more satisfying experience.

This is an unusual world for fantasy, because it’s not based on a medieval-like setting, but rather a period reminiscent of the late 18th/early 19th Century, although it does possess its own forms of magic: at the top of the pyramid stand the Privileged, whose ability in mastering the elements makes them quite powerful – they offer support to the king’s rule and form powerful alliances called ‘cabals’, that are considered nearly invincible.  Then there are the Powder Mages, to whom gunpowder lends great stamina and skills, not least the ability of floating a bullet well past its normal trajectory, and of directing it with accuracy. Last are the Knacked, people with minor abilities that can however turn quite useful, if correctly employed.

As the story in Promise of Blood starts, Field Marshal Tamas brings to fruition the coup he’s been orchestrating with his allies: the present king’s rule brought the realm of Adro to the brink of disaster, with poverty and hunger beleaguering the people, while the forthcoming Accords with neighboring Kez will place Adro under the Kez political and financial thumb.  In one fell swoop, Tamas is able to kill most of the royal cabal of Privileged and to summarily judge and execute the king and the higher ranks of nobility: the use of guillotines for this final stage of the coup is what lends a strong French Revolution flavor to the novel.    Changing a country is however a difficult business and Tamas finds himself battling on several fronts while trying to resurrect his country’s economy, keeping the Kez and their expansionism at bay and thwarting some attempts on his life, the latter pointing at a traitor among his allies.  The Field Marshal therefore employs the services of former inspector Adamat (a man with the knack of eidetic memory) and sends his own son Taniel, a highly skilled powder mage, in pursuit of the last surviving king’s Privileged, while dealing with the problems of running a country and unraveling long-standing mysteries, again mixing mundane matters with magic in a compelling blend.

The background for Promise of Blood is a very interesting one, thanks to the combination of ordinary and supernatural I mentioned above: we have people wielding magic alongside common soldiers and servants, merchants and accountants, and through the various phases of Inspector Adamat’s investigation we have the opportunity of a closer look to Adran society where, for example, one of the major players is a workers’ union (something almost unheard of in the historical period that inspired the novel); or a powerful guild of assassins, the Black Street Barbers known for its silent efficiency, who are allowed to operate unhindered.  One of the elements I most enjoyed was the balance in the abilities afforded by gunpowder: a powder mage can draw great strength and resistance, or improved sight, from consuming it, not to mention the possibility of literally guiding a bullet well past the trajectory imposed by mere ballistics. And yet there are counterweights to this: not only in the fact that weapons are of the flintlock kind, and therefore able to shoot only one bullet at a time, so that a powder mage’s skills cannot be turned into a convenient deus ex machina, but also the use of powder can become addictive, not unlike any other drug.

As far as characters go, Field Marshal Tamas quickly became my favorite: he’s a somewhat hard, uncompromising man, but he also possesses a strong sense of justice and the willingness to make difficult choices for the common good. Having learned more about him and what makes him tick through the novellas I’ve read, it’s easier to understand his anger toward the former ruling class of Adro, although most of the times it’s a coldly calculated anger he knows how to channel, both for himself and the people he wants to lead toward a different future:

The people want blood right now, not words. They’ve wanted it for years. I’ve felt it. You’ve felt it. That’s why we came together to pull Manhouch from his throne.

His son Taniel is more difficult to relate to: both now and on my first read I saw him as something of a whiner, a boy looking for his father’s approval, and inclined to sulk when he doesn’t receive it in sufficient amount. If on one side I understand how difficult it would be to be the son of such a man, and to find oneself walking in such renowned footsteps, on the other I constantly felt the need to slap some sense into Taniel, especially when he pitched himself deeper into his powder addiction to numb the pains of the world, both the real and the merely perceived ones.

The pace of the story is fairly quick, alternating between Inspector Adamat’s investigation, political maneuvering in Adro, the looming Kez invasion and the obscure threat of god Kresimir’s return on the wings of an old prophecy that some Privileged seem determined to bring to fruition: the story flows pretty quickly between these different events and builds to a spectacular climax that however leaves many doors open for future developments.  With such a premise, as I said, it seems strange I did not feel compelled to continue sooner with the series, and I believe now that the main reason is the imbalance in characterization: unlike the first novel of the new series, or the prequel novellas, Promise of Blood does not seem to care much for female characters, and in a world where women can even choose to enroll in the military this does not come across too well.

Let’s examine some of the women who people this novel: Lady Winceslav, one of Tamas’ co-conspirators, is an influential person and the head of the mercenary group The Wings of Adom, and yet she’s easily duped by a young suitor; officer Vlora, Taniel’s fiancée and the central figure in Sins of Empire, causes the break of their engagement when he finds her in bed with another man; Ka-Poel, Taniel’s Fatrastan ally, is a powerful mage and a fearless fighter, but she’s mute; Privileged Julene is the quintessence of the Dark Lady, cruel and power-mad. And so on… I might be wrong, but I see a pattern here, one that might have subliminally influenced my decision to wait in discovering how the story progressed.  Thankfully, I can now see how the author changed this course along the way, and I must admit that reading the new novel before returning to this older trilogy had a very positive impact on my point of view of the overall story, one that promises to lead me on a very interesting path.

This time around I will not wait long before moving forward…

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Novella Review: ROLLING IN THE DEEP, by Mira Grant

Writer Mira Grant – the pen name of UF author Seanan McGuire – deals with horror in many forms, but always without need for the excesses of blood and gore: the fear in her stories comes rather from plunging the reader into the thick of events whose buildup is carefully crafted. Rolling in the Deep is no exception, as is no exception my choice of one of her stories for my posts: it’s by now an open secret that she’s one of my favorite authors…

Mermaids have always been a fascinating subject, beautiful hybrids between woman and fish whose sweet song lured lonely, unwary sailors to their demise, although in more recent times they have been turned into cute creatures of animated movies, while the truth – if there is indeed a glimmer of truth in the legend – could be quite different. As one of the characters in this story says at some point: “We turned monsters into myths, and then we turned them into fairy tales. We dismissed the bad parts.”

Imagine Network is a TV channel dedicated to monster-of-the-week B-movies and older sci-fi classics that launches into a venture destined to diversify their programming with “realistic” documentaries on controversial subjects (the various ghost-hunting shows plaguing current television come immediately to mind…) and for the highly-publicized launch of this new course they sponsor a scientific cruise with the goal of confirming the existence of mermaids.

On board the ship Atargatis convene scientist and TV people for what seems a whimsical search: a few of the former are either looking for scientific confirmation or refutation of the theory, and others to make a name for themselves in their field no matter how outlandish the subject; while the latter seek of course to improve ratings for the network and to reach personal success and visibility.  To insure that footage will show something to captivate the audience with, Imagine Network also enrolls a troupe of “professional mermaids”, women in costume who will provide some interesting film clips should all else fail.

The peculiar narrative choice of Rolling in the Deep comes from the blunt premise that the voyage of the Atargatis ended in mystery-shrouded tragedy, as testified by the quotes from the documentary created by Imagine Network on the crew’s disappearance, using the footage found aboard the empty vessel: evidently, not to be outdone by events, Imagine Network found a way to capitalize on the disaster and to draw a profit out of the expedition’s failure.  So it comes as no surprise to the readers that none of the characters they come to know in the course of the story will make it through, but that hardly matters – in my opinion – because what truly does is the road leading to the catastrophe.

The section of the novella heading toward its horrifying climax is deceptively unexciting: we meet a number of people – scientist and TV cast and staff – and learn a little about them, as we do with the ship’s captain and some of her crewmen. The three groups start their uneasy cohabitation on board the Atargatis as the differences in their personalities and leanings are tested in the enclosed environment of a ship at sea, and on the surface it seems like uninteresting fare, but on hindsight it looks like a plot to lull the reader into a false sense of tedium, so that when the unthinkable happens, when “the clawed, webbed hand (lashes) out of the dark” they are caught by surprise just as much as the characters are.

And what a bloody, disturbing surprise it is…

From that point on, the story goes into a fractured, accelerated sequence of images, not unlike the found footage of some well-known horror movies, offering us swift glimpses of the carnage that happens aboard the Atargatis as the myth choses to move out of the depths where it had been hidden and comes to the surface, swift and merciless and totally efficient in its actions.

Thanks to fellow blogger Tammy, over at Books, Bones and Buffy, I’ve learned there will soon be a follow-up to this novella, and to say I’m quite curious to see where Mira Grant will lead us next would be a massive understatement, indeed.

 

My Rating: