Reviews

Review: POLARIS RISING, by Jessie Mihalik

 

There are times when some lighter reading is exactly what the doctor ordered: after happily losing myself in any number of books dealing with end-of-the world scenarios, galaxy-spanning conflicts or epic battles in ancient realms, a palate cleanser, so to speak, is not only desirable but required, so that books like Polaris Rising always seem like the right choice for the occasion.

What this novel promises is the kind of uncomplicated adventure, combined with some humor, which is exactly was I was looking for: I knew there was some romance added to the mix, but given the overall premise I hoped it would not prove too intrusive. Moreover, the story ticks all the boxes I was looking for in an entertaining, light read: a plucky heroine, a darkly mysterious male counterpart, a galaxy ruled by family corporations in constant economic and political warfare, and a mystery to be solved.

Ada von Hasenberg is the scion of one of the influential families at the top of the feeding chain, but since she’s only a fifth child her usefulness to the clan can only come from marriage to some other aristocrat, in that endless game of political give-and-take that’s been going on since the dawn of time.  Not being very sanguine about that kind of fate, Ada escaped and for the past two years managed to keep ahead of the “hunters” sent by her family to bring her back into the fold – and she manages that until the beginning of the novel where we meet her as she fights the mercenaries who just captured her with the promise of a rich bounty set by the von Hasenbergs.  Thrown into the brig of the mercs’ ship, she finds herself in the company of another prisoner, Marcus Loch, best known as the “Devil of Fornax Zero” and one of the most wanted men in the galaxy – a very dangerous cellmate indeed, but in these circumstances a very useful ally for the escape plan Ada is already concocting and which becomes even more urgent once she learns that her prospective fiancé is about to rendezvous with her captors to retrieve her.

From here on, the novel takes a path that could certainly be defined as predictable, if still entertaining: the tentative alliance between Ada and Loch is based on uneasy trust, charged silences and a smoldering mutual attraction that at times borders on comical absurdity, yet the author manages all of that with the kind of panache that helps to overlook the blatant (and in my opinion often unnecessary) deviations into a territory more suited to ‘bodice rippers’ than SF adventure.  Luckily there is enough of a main plot as to offer a reasonably solid background, and even though it looks somewhat thin in places or prone to lengthy infodumps, it might be enough to counterbalance the main characters’ passionate interludes. That is, if it weren’t for some glaring pitfalls that become more evident – and less bearable – as the story progresses.

For starters, Ada and Loch are quite over the top, as far as characters go: she all too often skirts into Mary Sue territory, what with her fighting abilities and physical prowess, the handy gadgets she can produce at the drop of a hat when the situation requires, or the easy way she meets any mechanical or navigational challenge – it’s all credited to her training as a major House heir, of course, but still it sounds like far too much for a single individual. For his part, Loch fits perfectly the cliché of the Brooding Guy With A Past, a man with a gruff exterior and an honorable soul – and of course he’s shaped like a Greek god cast in bronze, circumstance that causes Ada to lose her hard-gained cool in more than one occasion

The addition of some secondary characters, who should have offered an interesting balance, seems however more a nod to the necessity of peopling the story with someone besides the two protagonists, rather than anything else: these figures – Veronica,  the backwater planet fence who turns into a precious ally; Rhys, the arms dealer with ties to Loch’s past; Bianca, Ada’s older and very supportive sister – look more like stage props than flesh-and-blood people, and they are not given enough room to grow and become more defined, smothered as they are by the overwhelming presence of Ada and Loch.

Something I noticed, as I kept reading, was a sort of repetitive pattern that became stale after the second or third instance: the two protagonists keep being taken captive, one at a time, to allow the other to rescue them, and the wounds received in such rescue operations give way to another dreaded trope, that of the “hurt/comfort syndrome”: you can understand how my initial enthusiasm might have cooled considerably by then…

It would not have mattered much in the general economy of the novel, however, if Ada’s characterization had not sent such mixed signals: on one side we are told she’s strong, independent, capable and quite bold – at some point she goes on a dangerous solo mission to infiltrate a mining operation where a momentous secret might be held – so that we are led to expect a personality more suited to our modern sensibilities, not to mention the genre chosen to tell this story. On the other, she both shows a great deal of “girly” inclinations, like the meticulous description of the clothes she wears, that run contrary to the image the author wanted to present. Nonetheless, these are minor quibbles if compared to her sudden about face once the relationship with Loch becomes a thing: she turns to putty in his hands, and ultimately bows to his domineering attitude – as if she had been waiting all her life to find the kind of man who would sweep her off her feet and become the center of her world.  It would have annoyed me if I had been reading about a character set in Victorian England, but at least that would have been justified by the chosen time frame – not so for a story set in a distant future, and certainly not so for a character that until that moment had made of her freedom and independence the founding pillars of her life.

What do you do when you need a palate cleanser after the potential palate cleanser?   😀

 

My Rating:

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Reviews

Review: OUR WAR, by Craig DiLouie

 

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

My first encounter with Craig DiLouie’s work was through his previous novel, One of Us, a tale about children gifted with peculiar abilities, segregated from the rest of humanity and cruelly exploited.  Our War focuses on children as well, young people finding themselves enmeshed in war and having to fight, literally fight, to survive.

The premise states that an impeached president of the USA refuses to step down, starting a civil war between the opposing factions of his loyalist base and the Congress supporters who are asking for his resignation. The whole country is plunged in bloody strife and transforms into a series of war zones, with refugees trying to escape to marginally safer places, and bitter skirmishes happening along a very fluid, very dangerous battle line.

Ten-year- old Hannah and sixteen-year-old Alex Miller are brother and sister, running away from home with their terrified parents in search of an uncertain shelter from the warring parties: Alex, already a troubled teenager, runs from the family car in a surge of unfocused anger about the life he’s forced to leave behind, and ends up among the rebel forces loyal to the president, while the death of the father leaves Hannah and her mother to fend for themselves. When her mother is also killed by a sniper bullet, Hannah finds sanctuary with the Free Women militia, on the opposite side of the conflict.  Both kids, like many others, will learn how to wield weapons and kill – not just for survival but for a desperate need to find a place to belong in a world gone mad.

The adult point of view comes from Aubrey, a dedicated journalist working for the Indianapolis Chronicle, and from Gabrielle, a Canadian UNICEF worker bringing some much-needed humanitarian aid in the war-torn country. Both of them are very interesting characters – Aubrey tries not to succumb to fear and cynicism, and finds an unexpected well of courage in the goal of showing the world what is happening to children enrolled in the militia, and Gabrielle braves the dangers of the war to pay forward the debt she owes to the man who saved her life when she was little – but the real focus of the story is, of course, on the two young siblings, on the other kids they meet in their respective groups and on the way the horrors of war can shape (and twist) a young mindset and soul.

My previous experience with Craig DiLouie’s work should have prepared me for this starkly lucid depiction of a country in the throes of war and the consequences visited upon its people, especially the young ones, but Our War went well beyond anything I might have foreseen, hitting me with unexpected strength: there is such a heart-wrenching quality to the story being told here, that I too often felt breathless with the chilling impact of it all.  The suddenness with which society crumbles, once the conflict starts, reveals how thin our veneer of civilization is, how the savage side of our collective mind is always lurking beneath that surface layer: what’s truly terrifying, in the devastated world depicted in this book, is that it looks all too plausible, that the way politics have changed in the last handful of years have made the scenario in Our War a troublesome possibility rather than a flight of the imagination.

The way we approach politics these days, no matter the country one lives in, has turned away from a debate, however heated, of ideas, to become a constant barrage of insults, viciousness and other unsavory ingredients that have corrupted what should be a healthy exchange into a free-for-all where the warped logic of “us vs. them” has replaced any other kind of interaction.  We seem to have become too easily enmeshed in the kind of mob mentality that sees those with a different outlook (be it political, religious or whatever) not as someone with a divergent perspective but as blood enemies to be crushed. The step from partisan shouting to civil war appears all too brief and too easily taken, and this story highlights with terrible clarity the kind of steep incline we might all slide down on one of these days if we don’t re-learn some mutual respect and the ability to listen without being deafened and blinded by prejudice.

Our War shows us the possible consequences of underestimating that danger, consequences that would be mostly visited on the vulnerable ones, like children: Alex and Hannah quickly lose the carefree innocence that should be their right as they learn how to kill.  For both of them, what started as a form of defense transforms all too soon into an offensive stance: in Alex’s case because he finds himself attached to a group of people where many enjoy senseless violence for the sake of it, and he becomes somewhat addicted to the need for their approval, so that the only way the young boy has to obtain it is to become as trigger-happy as they are. Hannah, on the other hand, finds shelter with the Free Women and also the sense of family she lost as her loved ones disappeared one by one, therefore turning herself into a killer means being able to defend her newfound family and the protection – physical and mental – they provide.

Our War gives us a bleak picture of a possible (all too possible…) future, one that must compel us to seriously consider the dangers inherent in the habit of turning our differences into unsurmountable chasms, when even the slight glimmer of hope we find at the end does not seem enough to dispel the darkness left by looking into this potential abyss. 

Still, I would not have missed reading it for the world…

 

 

My Rating:

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Short Story Review: FIRE IN THE BONE, by Ray Nayler

 

CLICK ON THE LINK TO READ THE STORY ONLINE

 

This short story left me with a burning curiosity to know more, to learn how the world depicted in it came to be – that is, beyond the tantalizing glimpses offered by the narrative, whose moods change with each new detail offered by the author.

At first we are given a bucolic description of this unnamed planet at sunset, its sky filled by a departing harvest ship laden with its cargo. A young man observes it and an older one advises him not to dream of another life away from there, in the blackness of space – but the young man does not think about leaving, not much anyway, because despite the apparent boredom of an unchanging life, he’s clearly in love with a girl, or rather a robot servant shaped like a girl.

Little by little we learn that the planet was colonized by humans who later build robots to help them tend the fields, and that these colonists survived some terrible event called the Uprising: what filled me with curiosity is the scene of the communal dinner of the estate’s farmers, since they seem to be all men, no woman present among them, except the robot servers in female shape.

When the young man meets with the robot girl in the crumbling church of the estate, for one of their secrete assignments, something happens, and here is where the story surprised me with an unexpected development: read it and enjoy, because it will be worth your time…

 

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Short Story Review: THE FUTURE IS BLUE, by Catherynne M. Valente

 

CLICK ON THE LINK TO READ THE STORY ONLINE

 

All the reviews I read from my fellow bloggers about Ms. Valente’s novels hinted at a very versatile author, and this short story – the second I’ve read so far – confirms that any of her works might be quite different from the others, and just as fascinating.

The setting of this tale is a post-apocalyptic scenario in which the icecaps melted and the world disappeared under water: what remains of humanity survives in floating islands of garbage, cobbled together in makeshift cities.  Garbagetown is one such island, and the narrating voice is that of a nineteen year old girl, Tetley Abednego – by her own declaration, the most hated person in Garbagetown.

She lives alone, her only friends a deformed bird and an elephant seal cub, and the dwellers of Garbagetown visit her often to hit her, viciously: we don’t know why, at this point, and our angry puzzlement grows as we see that Tetley accepts those beatings matter-of-factly, and replies to those who hurt her with “thanks for my instruction”, because that is what the law requires of her.

Through a few flashbacks we see how Tetley grew up unloved and uncared for, unlike her twin brother Maruchan, how she gained her name through the required journey across the mountains of garbage that form her island – in a rite every child must undergo – and how the arrival of the Brighton Pier, a sort of traveling show, changed her life forever.

It’s a poignant, heart-wrenching story made even more so by Tetley’s quiet acceptance of it all – not through resignation but rather pragmatism – or her description of the flotsam of the previous civilization that is now piled in mounds of endless wonder and speculation.

I loved this story, even though it broke my heart, and I am set – now more than ever – to seek some longer works by this author to explore her amazing skills.

 

My Rating:

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Review: CHILDREN OF RUIN (Children of Time #2), by Adrian Tchaikovsky

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

When I approached this novel’s predecessor, Children of Time, I did so with some apprehension, since I’m mildly arachnophobic and the main characters in that story were indeed spiders: imagine my surprise when Adrian Tchaikovsky’s writing not only made my fear a moot point, but compelled me to root unabashedly for the eight-legged heroes of his saga…

The previous novel ended with a hint that there could be further territory to explore in this universe, whose most fascinating element comes from the fact that uplifted creatures are now the more populous, more advanced species, and mankind is still struggling with the aftermath of its civilization’s end. Children of Ruin starts where book 1 ended, with a mixed group of scientist – arachnids and humans – embarked on a voyage of discovery for new frontiers.

Like book 1, this sequel follows two different timelines: the ‘present’ aboard the ship Voyager with its mixed crew, and the more remote past, where a group of terraformers has to deal with the collapse of human civilization and the realization that they might be all that is left of mankind.  With a storyline that somewhat parallels that of the evolution of new intelligence on Kern’s World, home of the spiders, one of the scientists on the ship Aegean uses Dr. Kern’s uplift virus on his octopus specimens to create a viable race for the water world he’s focusing on, thus creating a new intelligent species.

As eager as I was to learn more about the arachnid-human association and their journey of exploration, together with the marvels of the organic ship they traveled on, Children of Ruin did not work for me as well as the first book in the series did, partly because of what I perceived as a form of pattern repetition, and partly because of pacing problems.  Still, I’d like to start with what I enjoyed in this new story.

The alliance between the survivors of mankind and the uplifted spiders is one that works but still needs to bridge many differences, chiefly where inter-species communication is involved: that was one of the most fascinating elements in this novel, with characters endeavoring to find the best approach – either simply linguistic or more mechanical – to understand each other without the mediation of the Kern personality residing in their computer.  And of course there are still the compelling arachnid social dynamics, where the females assert their dominance while the males struggle to obtain recognition in what I perceived as a pointed commentary worked through an interesting role reversal.

The human terraformers offer another thought-provoking perspective, especially in their reactions after the protracted silence from Mother Earth leads them to a dismal conclusion. They all appear as self-centered individuals, more focused on their scientific goals than on building a cohesive group so far away from home – in other worlds, an echo of Avrana Kern, multiplied by five, which made me think often about the author’s overall negative vision about humanity.

Then there are the octopuses, whose journey toward increased intellect somewhat parallels that of the spiders, but of course with substantial differences due both to their nature and to the liquid environment they live in, which offers fascinating angles in the creation of their society and its evolution, both planet-side and in space. For example, there are two curious details that stuck to my mind: one is that being boneless octopuses don’t suffer from the bone deficiencies that plague spaces after a prolonged permanence in microgravity; and two, for creatures that can move in several directions, there is no concept of ‘up’ or ‘down’ to upset directional perceptions as it happens to humans.

All of the above elements intrigued me of course, together with the addition of a new kind of creature bent on assimilating other forms of life to understand them, which added further pressure on the already tense situation between octopuses and the explorers from Kern’s World. Still, the octopuses’ evolution did not feel as compelling as that of the spiders in the first novel, and there was a great deal of space dedicated to their biological and psychological progress that felt more like a textbook than a work of fiction, lacking the irresistible quality of the evolutionary saga of the arachnids. Where I cared – so surprisingly, given my bias – for the way the spiders evolved in the course of the millennia of their history, I could not feel equally engaged with the octopuses’ journey, and what’s worse I could not feel any connection with the spiders featured in this novel: this perceived remoteness on my part was the main reason I was not invested in this story as I was with the first book.

Much of my reaction could be ascribed to the lack of novelty compared with its predecessor, since I could not erase the feeling of “been there, done that” that plagued me for most of the way, and moreover the overall plot gave off the feeling of being artificially intricate, lacking the beautiful, clear progression I enjoyed with Children of Time, which does not mean I did not enjoy this story but that I feel how a more… streamlined narrative would have worked better for my tastes.

I’m glad I read this, but nonetheless I can’t avoid the consideration that sequels often thread on dangerous ground, and this one might not have always successfully avoided the pitfall of such ground.

 

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Short Story Review: PAINLESS, by Rich Larson

 

Click on the LINK to read the story online

 

This is not my first short story by Rich Larson, but so far it is the best, most engrossing and poignant I have come across, one I will not so easily forget.

Mars is a soldier, or rather a special operative for difficult missions, the kind that involve great danger and high chances of grievous wounds or death – but all that does not matter to Mars, because he was born without the ability to feel pain, and later he was experimented on and made invulnerable.

Try and imagine what it would mean to be changed so profoundly that everyone stops seeing you as human, and then being sent out into the world to kill, sometimes taking out bad people, sometimes… well, not.  After a while, even a detached personality like Mars’, who seems unable to feel anything at all – love, hate, friendship, camaraderie – must succumb to the need to seek oblivion. And that’s the point in his journey when we meet him at the start of the story, when he places himself in front of a truck that will smash him to pieces…

A few flashbacks show how he came to that point, what he was before and what was done to him: the remoteness of the delivery does nothing to keep the reader from feeling profound horror and compassion, to feel for this character in the way he’s unable to feel for himself.  Yet there is a glimmer of hope in the end, and it makes all the shock and pain we are forced to endure worthwhile.

 

My Rating:

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Short Story Review: ANY WAY THE WIND BLOWS, by Seanan McGuire

 

CLICK ON THE LINK TO READ THE STORY ONLINE

 

Would you be surprised if I told you that visiting the ‘fiction’ section of the Tor.com site and seeing Seanan McGuire’s name caused me to stop there and then to read this story?  No, I know you won’t… 😀   And as usual I found an intriguing, immersive tale whose only drawback was that it ended too soon.

The premise is a well-known one, the existence of parallel universes, but the story itself is a journey where witty remarks and horrifying glimpses coexist in perfect balance: the crew of the airship Her Majesty’s Stalwart Trumpet of Glory (or Stubby for brevity, one of the ships of the Cartography Corps) travels through these alternate realities to chart them while looking for artifacts to bring home.  This particular crew has been assigned to the North American area, and as the story starts they are approaching this world’s version of New York, relieved to find a recognizable landmark in the famous Flatiron Building.

Captain Isabel Langford, the Stubby’s captain, lost all her sense of wonder for what awaits her and her crew in each new reality: having seen it all, she seems to have grown jaded by it and she more than looks forward to the time when she will be able to enjoy a more stable life. Not that the overall tone of the story is one of gloom, of course, because there is instead a definite veneer of sarcasm running through it, from the description of the ragtag crew and their rambunctious ways, to the glimpses of past encounters in other realities – like the one where the inhabitants of New York had to take shelter in the subway tunnels because the pigeons had turned “carnivorous and bloodthirsty”.

What awaits Langford and crew in this version of New York will be a surprise, indeed, and one that seems to give these explorers a newfound perspective in their work.   

I enjoyed Any Way The Wind Blows, but I would have loved to see this premise expanded into a longer work: there is a great deal of potential in this story and in the small glimpses we are offered here and I hope that Seanan McGuire might decide one day to turn this into a full-fledged novel.

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