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Short Story Review: YE HIGHLANDS AND YE LOWLANDS, by Seanan McGuire

I have to thank fellow blogger Maryam from The Curious SFF Reader, who sent me the link to this story, for the opportunity of reading this intriguing foray into science fiction by UF author Seanan McGuire, one that I might otherwise have missed: knowing how much I admire this writer, she pointed me this way, and at the same time introduced me to Uncanny Magazine, that’s been added to the list of places where I will look for interesting short fiction.

YE HIGHLANDS AND YE LOWLANDS

(click on the above link to read the story)

In Ye Highlands and Ye Lowlands we learn that the world as we know it is ending and that the present situation is the direct consequence of a precise chain of events – indeed the words “things have consequences” keep resonating throughout the story, much like an ominous warning. Or a funeral dirge…

The main character, a mother with two teenaged kids, seeks some respite from what we understand is a long journey with little or no hope, and we learn through a series of flashbacks what happened before: the amazing discovery of a portal toward another world, the observation of this alien land where a few robotic probes have been sent in search for life, the encounter with an alien species – and the beginning of the end.

There is a painful dichotomy between the grim present, where people are running from certain death toward the few safe places – as long as they last, of course – and the hopeful, enthusiastic past, when people joked about the portal wanting to call it “the Stargate”, or when they sent the robot probes supplied with “every known human language—including Klingon”, in a giddy reach for contact with other forms of life that could not be disconnected from the number of fictional presentations that used to fire our imagination.  There is even some commentary about the fickleness of the human soul, when even the images of an alien world stop making the news, because “..-quickly people got over the magnitude of our discovery”.

I’m not going to reveal what the twist in the tale is, of course, but I feel comfortable in saying that it’s a painfully surprising one, and also a warning about the dangers of overconfidence, of putting one’s dreams above all else:  “we’d been so busy wallowing in intellectual ideals that we’d never stopped to think”.  Despite the grimness, despite the hopelessness, I enjoyed this story very much because no one like McGuire is able to deliver a tale of ultimate doom while keeping her readers engaged, enthralled by the way she weaves her words into a clear, mesmerizing picture.

Not a “happy” story, not by a long shot, but a powerful one that makes you think about the outcome of our choices, and the dangers of taking our customs and thinking processes for granted. Because, in the end

THINGS HAVE CONSEQUENCES

HELLO

My Rating: 

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: 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: 

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:  

Novella Review: EVERGLADES, 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

EVERGLADES

Short and brutal and sad: these are the words that best describe this story, one of those that are new to me.  Each of these short tales comes with an introduction by Mira Grant, a way to set it in the bigger picture if you want – and I find these just as fascinating as the stories themselves.  In here, the author delves into the mindset of those people facing the end of the world as they know it and choosing to be “a statistic”, one of the “soft costs” of a dramatic chain of events.

Everglades is set in the early days of the Rising, in a California campus besieged by the walking dead and seen through the eyes of Debbie, one of the students attending summer semester.  The harsh reality of the zombie apocalypse alternates with Debbie’s recollection of one perfect summer in Florida, visiting her grandparents and going on an excursion in the Everglades with her grandfather.  The man had taken Debbie to the swamp, showing her that what looked like logs in the waters were, in truth, alligators lying in wait:

“Always remember that Nature can be cruel, little girl,”said Grandpa.  “Sometimes it’s what looks most harmless that hurts you the most.”

Debbie is remembering that lesson now, as the number of survivors in the campus keeps dwindling alongside their hopes of rescue: knowing, as we readers know, that salvation will not come, not in the chaotic days of the Rising, it’s not difficult to understand these people’s mindset, the uneasy mix of hope and despair, of doubt and terror.  When she realizes that the alligators, like other predators out there, are more tailored for survival than human beings, that intelligence and progress and science can amount to nothing in the face of the unspeakable horror that is being visited upon the world.

These stories are not easy to read – the subject matter sees to that in no uncertain way – but at the same time they show the whole range of human emotions, of strength and frailties, that can be seen in exceptional circumstance: and Mira Grant truly excels in depicting those in her deceptively plain, but powerful, way.

My Rating: 

Review: GEMINA, by Amie Kaufman & Jay Kristoff (Illuminae Files #2)

Last year I was literally swept away by Illuminae, the first volume in this trilogy: not only because of its compelling story, but also thanks to its remarkable characters, that went a long way toward changing my opinion about YA-oriented stories. Kady Grant and Ezra Mason, the two main protagonists of book 1, were depicted as normal teenagers – no whining, no pouting, no interminable complaints about the unfairness of the world – dealing with some relationship troubles until a tragic event turned their lives upside down, forcing them to mature more quickly while they desperately tried to stay alive.

When I went into Gemina I knew that this second book would follow along the same guidelines, but with different characters, and I was somewhat worried that it would feel like a rehash of the previous story, and that disappointment might lie on that road. Now I’m very happy to say that I was totally wrong. Yes, Hannah and Nik – the main characters in this new installment – are young people fighting for their lives and needing to push their individual envelopes a lot further than expected, but their journey is a different one, and their personalities refreshingly different.  But let’s proceed with order…

As the survivors of the Kerenza assault travel toward Heimdall Jumpstation, to bring evidence of the colony’s massacre and BeiTech’s involvement in it, the latter are mounting a raid that will insure the elimination of any and all witnesses to the Kerenza operation. A special incursion team is dispatched to Heimdall, taking advantage of the station’s downtime due to a holiday, and takes over, killing the higher-ranking officers, locking away the rest of the personnel and lying in wait for the Hypathia, the ship carrying the Kerenza survivors.   Only a few people manage to escape the assailants’ net: Hannah Donnelly, the station commander’s daughter; Nik Malikov, son of an influential member of the crime organization House of Knives, and Hannah’s drug dealer; Ella Malikova, Nik’s cousin, a disabled girl with an amazing knack for computers.  The three find themselves dealing not only with the assault team – and the incoming drone fleet that will obliterate Heimdall after the destruction of Hypatia – but also with the infestation of an alien life form, used by House of Knives to harvest a highly sought-after drug and running amok after the BeiTech attackers have killed the criminals handling the operation.

The only similarities between Illuminae and Gemina come from the protagonists’ need to overcome insurmountable odds, while the clock keeps ticking toward certain annihilation, and of course from the format of the story, a collection of chat transcripts, personal messages exchanged across the station’s net, Hannah’s diary excerpts and the transcripts of the station’s camera footage, complete with the dedicated technician’s comments (a very welcome relief from the drama unfolding on the pages) and the redaction of profanities.  That said, both the story and the characters are refreshingly new, and all of them managed to surprise me because they defied any expectation I might have had given the way they were initially introduced. The pace is relentless, and there are many surprises along the way that again challenge any pre-conceived idea I might have had about the evolution of the plot.

In the beginning Hannah Donnelly comes across as your typical spoiled brat, frustrated by the life she’s leading on the station and compensating by being a party girl and a supplier of drugs for her friends. Her liaison with one of her father’s junior officers seems to go in the same direction, as if she’s trying to “rock the boat” and see how far she can go. Not exactly the kind of person one would expect to come forward and try to stop the bad guys from blowing up the station, is she? And yet, when the BeiTech team storms Heimdall, Hannah sheds her flighty persona in no time at all and shows what she’s really made of, revealing unsuspected qualities, like the perfect physical form she’s maintained in the long hours spent in the gym, practicing martial arts, or the lessons in tactics and warfare that were part of her father-daughter moments with Commander Donnelly, and that allow her to keep up the dangerous cat-and-mouse game she engages with the invaders, particularly their leader, code-named Cerberus.

On first meeting Nik Malikov one might be inclined to describe him as the typical gang member: he’s cocky, arrogant, covered in tattoos that shout to the world his deeds or the times he spent in jail.  He works with his uncle, the station’s leader for the House of Knives, and helps harvesting dust – the recreational drug used on the station – from mind-drinking, snake-like alien creatures: there is a particular scene concerning this part of the HoK activities that I don’t recommend reading around mealtimes…  Yet there is more, much more than meets the eye with Nik – and what we discover about his past, along the way, helps a great deal to alter that initial image – and more importantly there is a deep capacity for both care and courage in this young man that quickly endeared him to me, long before I started to look at Hannah with equally different eyes.

Plot-wise, the dangerous, bloody game the two engage with the assault team is the main driving power of the novel: on the surface, some of the defeats suffered by the BeiTech people seem too easy, even contrived, but the authors always manage to show that either Hannah or Nik employ their experience, intelligence and craft (not to mention an intimate knowledge of the station and how it works) to put all the monkey wrenches they can think of into the invader’s gears. For their part, the BeiTech people appear quite sure of themselves, and well prepared on technical side of the operation, but their past rate of success seems to have put a dangerous cockiness into their attitude, a flaw that exposes them to the young people’s guerrilla tactics.  After a while, the operation seems to change its scope and transforms from a military raid into a conflict of wits and a fight for physical and psychological supremacy – especially true for Cerberus and his chief operative Kali, whose nickname goes well with her vengeful attitude.  In my opinion, the reason for Hannah and Nik’s successful incursions lies exactly there, in the loss by the BeiTech team of their professional focus in favor of a more personal goal.

Another interesting element comes from the growing relationship between Hannah and Nik: unlike Kady and Ezra in Illuminae they are not already a couple, and there is no attraction between them.  There is a sort of playful game going on, granted, where Nik peppers their communications with not-so-subtle innuendoes and Hannah plays to the hilt her role of arrogant snob – the one that gains her the appellatives of “Princess” or “Your Highness” from the young man – but they come from two very different walks of life and romantic attachment is indeed the last of their thoughts.  But it’s through the experience of being the only two (three, if you count Ella) free people on the station, the disillusionments they suffer (Hannah in particular) and the shared dangers that they become close, and something starts growing between them.  Even more than romance, the coming together of Hannah and Nik feels like the meeting of two people who are changing through hardship,  finding their true selves and finding a great match in the other person, once the real personality manages to shine though.

All in all, I can safely say that I enjoyed Gemina even more than its predecessor, and that this series will end up being one of my favorites, and a keeper: I have decided to buy the physical books so that I can look in detail at what I missed in the electronic form of the novels, and will do so for the third volume as well.  For someone who vowed to keep strictly to e-books for ease of use and freedom of space, this means a great deal, indeed…

My Rating:


Movie Review: THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS

When I read M.R. Carey’s novel The Girl with All the Gifts I was aware that the movie rights for the book had been optioned, but since I heard nothing further about the project, I thought it had been abandoned as it’s bound to happen sometimes: imagine then my surprise when I discovered that a movie was indeed filmed in 2016.  I have no way of knowing whether the movie was a direct-to-DVD production or more simply it skipped the theatre run in my part of the world: what matters is that I was recently able to see and appreciate the filmed version of this amazing story.

The premise might seem taken out of a classic horror scenario: a fungal infection taking possession of the victims’ cognitive faculties turns them into ravenous zombies, and the few survivors live in military enclaves surrounded by the hordes of the “hungries”.  In one of such besieged areas, a group of children is used as test subjects to find a cure for the infection: they were all born after the spread of the disease and, while affected like the rest o humanity, they retain both intelligence and rationality.  These children represent the next stage, or the new humans, but for Dr. Caldwell (a chillingly efficient Glen Close) they are nothing but specimens, to be used in the search for a cure, and likewise the military personnel treat them like unthinking animals, unmoved by some of the children’s continuing demonstrations of intellect and empathy.  The only person on the base ready to see the humanity beyond the danger is the teacher Miss Justineau (Gemma Arterton), whose special pupil is Melanie (portrayed with amazing skill by emergent Sennia Nanua), narrating voice of the inspiring book.

Like the novel, the movie leaves little space to the zombie-like hordes roaming the Earth, and concentrates instead on the psychology of the characters, going beyond the somewhat limited focus of book-Melanie’s observations to delve deeper into the other characters: Sergeant Parks, the rough-mannered soldier trying to keep them all alive after the base has been overrun by hungries, the most vocal about the need to keep Melanie constrained like the dangerous animal he sees in her; Doctor Caldwell, whose “the end justifies the means” attitude allows her to conveniently forget that she’s killing children to save a doomed humanity, that they are alive and possess feelings – something she is unwilling to accept; and Miss Justineau, who enjoys teaching her young charges and is too happy to read them tales from the classical myths instead of instructing them in math or chemistry.

And a Greek myth is indeed at the core of this story, that of Pandora who set free all the afflictions contained in the proverbial box, but ended her act by also freeing hope as a parting gift: hope is indeed what remains for a beleaguered humanity in this post-apocalyptic world – not the hope of being saved by some miracle cure, but the hope represented by the next generation, the children who will inherit the changed Earth. It’s not exactly a comforting scenario but it’s definitely better than the usual total-annihilation solution that so many offerings of the genre portray.

What makes the movie – and the book – quite special is Melanie’s voice, given life on the screen by an emerging performer whose amazing talent gives the lie to her young age: Sennia Nanua shows Melanie’s transition from the initial secluded innocence to the awareness of who and what she is with remarkable skill, managing the coexistence of the helpful child – able to navigate unscathed the dangers of the changed world – with the feral creature who needs to feed on living flesh, or the merciless fighter battling against the wild children of the city to defend the adults who find themselves suddenly in need of her protection.    The visuals are quite stunning as well, not so much because of any special effects (the movie does not possess the feel of the huge, money-heavy production) but because it’s able to create the right atmosphere with the abandoned buildings chocked by fungal growths and peopled by unmoving hungrier waiting for a sign of life to jump into murderous activity.

The soundtrack deserves a special mention as well, since it mostly consists of human voices raised in a wail-like song that seems like a lament for the end of the world: it’s eerie and terrifying and it complements to perfection the images rolling on the screen.

The Girl with All the Gifts is not exactly an uplifting movie, and neither was the book that inspired it, but if offers so much inspiration for thought, as a window on the human soul, that I can heartily recommend it.

My Rating:


Review: FORTUNE’S PAWN, by Rachel Bach (Paradox #1)

Is it possible to enjoy a book for the intriguing background it depicts, and for the adventure and mystery at the core of its story, and at the same time to be extremely irritated with it for some annoying characterization choices?  Yes, it is, if that book is Fortune’s Pawn.  But let’s start with the details I did enjoy, first.

The beginning of the story is immediately captivating: Deviana Morris is a mercenary, a highly-skilled one, working out of her custom-made powered armor toward the goal of enlisting with the Paradoxian Kingdom’s elite corps, the Devastators. Devi is focused and determined, and when she understands that her latest posting will not advance her further toward the Devastators, she choses a lateral career move: on the advice of a friend, she finds work as security on Captain Caldswell’s Glorious Fool, a ship with a bad name, because its security personnel does not last long – Caldswell seems to go through hired mercenaries as if they were disposable tissues.

Once she’s enlisted by Caldswell – and immediately proceeds to put her fellow mercenary Cotter in his place – she starts having second thoughts about the posting, one that seems a bit dull by her standards, until things start to happen, and the mysteries pop up one after the other.  The Glorious Fool‘s crew is a peculiar mix: apart from the captain, and his silent daughter Ren – a girl who sports autistic-like behavior but is much, much creepier than that – there are an avian first officer with the temper of an old curmudgeon; a nice but distant chief engineer who’s also the captain’s sister-in-law;   Nova, a tech who’s into new-new-age rituals in a major way; a reptilian doctor, from a species that is otherwise regarded as ferociously dangerous; and Rupert the cook.  I’ll come back to this guy in a little while…

This premise caught my attention in no time at all: a woman working – and excelling – at a traditional male job, and doing so with a suit of powered armor, to boot.  I enjoyed immensely the descriptions of the Lady Grey, Devi’s suit, and its various weapons, all of them graced with female names.  In Devi’s mind the Lady is a person more than a collection of parts; a trusted companion more than a tool, and the mercenary cares about it more deeply than she does for her team-mates.  Morris comes across as a mix between Ellen Ripley, Sarah Connor and Aeryn Sun all rolled into one and she lets nothing and no one interfere with her ultimate goal: she might even look obsessed at times, and extremely self-centered, but this is part of her personality and what makes her intriguing, and different from the usual mold of the proverbial ass-kicking heroine.

As she starts to integrate with the crew of the Glorious Fool, Devi notices some oddities in their behavior, and her curiosity is aroused beyond what would be safe for her plan of fulfilling her year-long commitment to Caldswell and his eventual backing to a post with the Devastators, so that she keeps digging, until a few outlandish – and possibly dangerous – truths start making themselves plain. The last part of the story is a crescendo of conflicting revelations and half-perceived clues that point to a possible galaxy-wide conspiracy, and much more; heated battles, alien mysteries and a touch of black-ops politics all contribute to create a riveting background for which this first volume in the series represents only the first act. For this reason alone I know I will continue reading, even though some narrative choices went against my tastes (and the character’s outline) in a major way – namely the romantic element.

Devi Morris is presented from page one as a very independent, very strong-willed person; one who knows very clearly what she wants and how to get it; one who dismisses sentimental entanglements because they go against her final objective.  The first time we see her, she’s enjoying a brief fling with her friend-with-benefits Anthony, and she politely but firmly turns down his offer for a stable relationship.  More than once, Devi reminds us that “home and hearth” are not what she wants, and that she’s used to mercenary-style liaisons, i.e. brief affairs between battles, with the awareness that death is always around the corner.

But once Devi sets eyes on the Glorious Fool‘s cook Rupert, on his “piercing blue eyes” and “silky black hair”, all of the above flies out the nearest airlock, never to return. At first it seems like a purely physical interest, one that could go well with Devi’s previous behavioral patterns, but when the man keeps gently (oh, so gently!) rebuking her advances, she becomes obsessed. Worse, Rupert is soon revealed as the holder of Big, Dark Secrets, and that only serves to fuel the mercenary’s infatuation even more. Worse still, once the two manage a heated night of passion, Devi discovers he’s the best lover she ever had, the most gentle and considerate, and of course the strongest.

So it’s instant, deep and abiding love and – surprise, surprise – it’s mutual.

I’m unable to avoid seeing this course of events as forced, and taking up much more space than necessary in the economy of the story. I can’t perceive any real chemistry between Devi and Rupert, except for what looks more like a hormonal reaction on her part –  and one more suited to a teenager than a battle-hardened soldier.  The whole scenario, in my opinion, robs her character of all the attributes that make her unique and that caught my attention at the beginning of the book, while the “crime” is compounded by two instances (not one, but two!) in which she’s saved from certain death by a mysterious creature: it’s as if the author were saying that yes, we have a strong, capable soldier here, but she’s still a woman, and she still needs to be saved – she still needs someone to carry her away in their oh-so-strong arms. Which defies the whole purpose of the character, in my book.

Speculative fiction requires its readers to suspend their disbelief, and we are more than happy to do that when it comes to faster-than-light engines, exotic alien forms, strange environments, and so on – just to quote a few – but no matter how outlandish the setting, people remain people and I like to see them behave and react in a believable, organic way, and not as trope-fueled puppets.  As I said, I will keep on reading the series because I’m curious about the unsolved mysteries that were presented here, but I’m afraid I will not be enjoying the main character as I did at the beginning – unless something changes in the next installments…

My Rating: