Reviews

Short Story Review: TRAVELERS, by Rich Larson

 

This is a mix between a thriller and a science fiction story and one that reminded me strongly of the recent movie Passengers, starring Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt, to the point that I wondered if this short work had been used as a template for the movie script. The premise is quite similar, a sleeper ship and a woman waking up from suspended animation (here called ‘torpor’) to discover that the automated systems brought her out of sleep because of health concerns. When she checks the ship’s status she finds out that their destination is still 32 years away, and that she can’t access the medbay, either to check on her status or to attempt a return to hibernation, but also that she’s not alone: a man has built a nest of blankets in an airlock and he’s playing guitar.

The differences with the movie I mentioned start from here (including the fact that the ship is not on a pleasure cruise, but is rather carrying survivor from an unspecified event), and it’s worth exploring them, particularly where morals are concerned: in the movie, the decision of waking up another passenger, though it was a step not taken lightly, was ultimately condoned. The young woman’s rage about seeing her life and plans shattered because of a selfish act – and not matter the mitigating reasons, it was a selfish act – all but disappear when shared danger and mutual attraction manage to change her mind. This was of course a predictable outcome, because Hollywood rules would not have allowed anything else, but in this short story things are quite different: more realistic, for starters, far darker and much more terrifying.

Don’t expect friendly robot bartenders dispensing alcoholic beverages and easy wisdom, nor good-looking characters destined to a happy-ever-after: this is far closer to the truth of the given premise, and far more gruesome…

But worth a look…

You can read the story online here

 

 

My Rating:

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Reviews

Review: JADE CITY (The Green Bone Saga #1), by Fonda Lee

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

In recent times I have been quite fortunate when taking chances with authors either unknown to me or publishing their first book, and Jade City was no exception: I read that the author Fonda Lee published a few YA stories before branching out into adult fiction and into this very peculiar genre that is a mix between urban fantasy and a noir, and I must say that the attempt was not just very successful, but also resulted in a deeply engaging story, one that drew me in completely and kept my imagination captive for the whole journey.

The background of Jade City has a fascinating Far Eastern flavor and it’s coupled with a time setting that reminded me of the early ‘60s, conferring to the story a unique feel that is part of its appeal, even though the lion’s share goes to the story itself and the characters. The island of Kekon rests on huge deposits of jade, mined not for its ornamental qualities but because it confers extraordinary powers to those who are able to harness its energy: Green Bones, as they are called, are capable of incredible physical and mental feats – as an individual’s tolerance to jade increases with use, so do the abilities he or she can employ.

One could say that jade has shaped Kekonese society: at its top are Green Bones, of course, organized in clans governed by a rigid set of rules and gaining or losing influence according to the economic power wielded over the big and small businesses of “common” citizens, those who are unable to wear jade. A clan is ruled by the Pillar, whose immediate lieutenants are the Weatherman (who advises the Pillar on matters of policy) and the Horn, the enforcer, who through the Fists and Fingers deals with any circumstance requiring a show of strength – or violence. The two major clans on the island are the Mountain and No Peak, the latter ruled by the Kaul family, who are at the center of the events: Lan, the Pillar; Hilo, the Horn, and their younger sister Shae, who some years before gave up all her privileges and jade to go live among foreigners and try to forge a different kind of life for herself. Her return home coincides with a series of events that will bring her clan to open war with the Mountain and force the Kaul siblings toward paths no one of them would have expected.

As I said, this novel is a very engaging one, and it took little time for me to be enfolded by the story while learning the fascinating details of Kekon’s past and the Kaul family history. The impression one derives from the narrative is that until recently Kekon was very similar to a feudal holding, moving into a more modern outlook only in the last few decades, after a bloody independence war sanctioned its freedom from foreign occupation: modern conveniences like cars or television sets seem like a novelty that’s slowly spreading through the populace, while many of the older customs and ways of thinking still linger on and still inform everyday dealings. The parallel with Japan after the end of WWII is quite striking and serves very well to illustrate the uneasy transition between the older and younger generation: in the Kaul family, for example, the aged, ailing patriarch still clings to older methods of conducting business and interacting with competitors, while his grandsons either try to balance the old with the new, or seek different paths for the changing times. Then there is Shae, who falls somehow in the middle, having tried to sever ties with her past, only to return home and find herself entangled in family business and deadly feuds.

The beauty of these characters is that they are all flawed in one way or another, and those flaws help in making them more human despite the incredible abilities bestowed on jade wearers, powers that allow them to channel enormous strength for physical feats, or to create shields out of thin air, or again to perceive other people’s thoughts and emotions. Without these flaws they might have looked like cartoonish characters, but instead they suffer, and bleed, and make terrible mistakes, and through it all they grow and evolve: Lan is a man of peace, maybe not the best choice for Pillar of No Peak since he lacks the aggressiveness that’s sometimes necessary to withstand the Mountain’s plays for power, and yet there is such a depth of honesty to him that it’s impossible not to understand where his attitude comes from, just as it’s impossible to mistake it for weakness as others do. His brother Hilo is quite the opposite, brash and violent on the outside, but fiercely loyal on the inside and capable of enormous acts of generosity: I must admit that I liked Hilo quite a bit, especially when he finds himself forced to juggle his deeper instincts and the need for shrewdness required by the clan war.

And last, but not least, Shae and Hilo’s lover Wen: being a woman in Kekonese society is not easy, given the cultural restrictions imposed on them by past customs that are not evolving as rapidly as one might wish. And yet – each in a different way – they manage to leave their mark on the people around them and to show that strength is not a quality that comes from jade or physical prowess, but from the depths of one’s soul. These two women are perhaps the best indicators of the slow but inexorable changes that are starting to take root in Kekon, and it will be interesting to see how these first seeds of change will bloom in the next books for this series.

In short, Jade City was such an immersive reading experience that I often found myself needing a conscious effort to transition back to the real world: to me, that’s the mark of strong writing and expert storytelling, elements that make me want to explore more of this author’s works.

Highly recommended.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

PLANETARY AWARDS 2017

It’s again time to vote for the Planetary Awards, the chance to nominate your favorite novel and shorter story for last year.

 

 

The contest is promoted by PLANETARY DEFENSE COMMAND and you can go HERE and learn how to list and promote your “darlings” – which is quite easy on the technical side, and not so easy where the actual choice is concerned.

I discovered this hard truth by looking at my 5-star reviews for 2017: picking one for the full-length novel was the hardest choice of all, so I started with an elimination process that excluded the authors in my “buy sight unseen” list, for the simple reason that they are all well-known, much acclaimed authors and since this year I had the incredible luck of discovering several amazing debut novels, I wanted to spotlight them, so their authors could get some more visibility.

Not that this made my choice any easier… So I had to resort to the time-honored, if not scientifically sound, method of writing the titles of these novels on pieces of paper, mixing them in a box and picking one with my eyes closed. Then I repeated the process for the shorter works, just to keep feeling… solomonic.

So ((loud drum roll)) I’m very pleased to announce the winners and my nominees for the 2017 Planetary Awards:

     Full Length Novel: AGE OF ASSASSINS, by R. J. Barker

    Short Story or Novella: ACADIE, by Dave Hutchinson

Go and vote for your favorite authors/stories: it’s another way of showing our gratitude for the many wonderful hours we spend immersed in some other world…

My thanks for Planetary Defense Command for hosting the awards!

Reviews

Short Story Review: SANCTUARY, by Allen Steele

Allen Steele is another author in the quite long list of writers I intend to read one of these days, so the opportunity offered by Tor.com’s short fiction section was too good to ignore: Sanctuary is the story of a colonization attempt, and its beginning, hinting at the mission of a sleeper ship headed toward an Earth-like planet near Tau Ceti, touched one of my favorite subjects, and piqued my interest.

 

 

SANCTUARY, by Allen Steele

(click on the link to read the story online)

 

The tale is told through archived documentation, in the form of ship’s logs, and immediately conveys the flavor of old history mixed with a bit of legend: when the twin ships Lindbergh and Santos-Dumont reach the target planet, the revived flight crew starts to collect data on what should become their new home. There are a few surprises stemming from direct observation, details that the automated probe sent scouting ahead did not record, like the thinner atmosphere and the higher gravity, but the officers keeping the logs seem to gloss over these difficulties, certain that physical training and medical supplements will help the colonists adapt, while the new generation born on-planet will certainly encounter less difficulties.

The biggest surprise, though, comes from the realization they will not be alone on Tau-Ceti-e, because clear traces of a civilization – albeit a somewhat primitive one – are unmistakable. Still, this does not faze the explorers, because the planet is so big they will find the perfect landing site that will keep the two groups apart, probably for a long time. Again, there is only optimism in these logs, and great enthusiasm once landfall is achieved – and here is where things start to go wrong, first in a very small way, and then in dramatic increments: there was one sentence from the logs that sounded an alarm bell for me, one that appeared like the warning it was once the reason for the troubles hitting the colonists became clear.

There is a fascinating dichotomy between the terse log entries describing the facts and the feeling of impending doom they inspire, and it’s one that carries the story forward in an enthralling way. If this is a good example of Allen Steele’s narrative style, I need to read more of his works, indeed…

My Rating:

Reviews

Novella Review: ACADIE, by Dave Hutchinson

Dave Hutchinson is more widely known for his dystopian Fractured Europe series, whose first book I tried some time ago but did not finish: it was a good, interesting concept, that much I could see, but there was an underlying feeling of… sadness, for want of a better word, that ultimately drove me away from that story. My curiosity remains, however, and I don’t rule out the possibility of returning to the series at another time and maybe with a different frame of mind.

Meanwhile, I wanted to try something different from this author so that when I saw this novella mentioned I knew the different premise and genre might be what I needed, so I took the plunge: Acadie is a short but intriguing story that piqued my interest from page one to the – quite unexpected – end.  The central character is Duke (or rather John Wayne Faraday, the nickname being one of the many tongue-in-cheek jokes scattered throughout the narrative), formerly a lawyer with the Bureau of Colonization that he left after a callous incident he publicly denounced.  Adrift and without a job, Duke is contacted by an agent of the Colony, a remote conglomeration of artificial habitats created by Isobel Potter, a genetic scientist who fled Earth when her extreme experiments on human genome made her an outlaw.  After 500 years away from the mother planet and the Bureau, Potter and her acolytes have created a society where extreme modifications are the norm and freedom of choice is the law: Duke has been elected President for the simple reason that he doesn’t want the job, and that’s where the real story starts, as a probe from Earth manages to slip through the Colony’s defense systems and threatens to expose the location of Potter and her people.

The overall tone of the story is light and humorous, mostly because of the apparent happy-go-lucky attitude of the Colony’s dwellers toward anything organized or even faintly smelling of imposed order: the rebels have created a society where the highly intelligent inhabitants can be anything they like, either in career choice or appearance – Duke’s meeting with a group of Tolkien enthusiasts modified to look like Hobbits, Elves and so on is indeed a case in point.   Something changes, however, once the probe from Earth is discovered, not least because it was able to slip through the sophisticated net of countermeasures that were put in place: for this reason Duke is tasked with organizing the massive endeavor of picking up stakes and moving the Colony somewhere else, since their perfect hiding place has certainly been discovered.

Here is where a huge shift occurs: as the rest of the Colony moves away toward greener pastures, Duke and his team remain behind to insure no one will be aware of their whereabouts, and that’s when direct contact with the Earth probe’s AI changes everything, in a very unexpected, very dramatic way, taking away from the readers every single certainty they had gathered until that point.  It’s been a long while since I was so stunned by a story and by the way the narrative managed to lull me into a false sense of security, only to open its trap under my feet at the very last moment.

Well done indeed…

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Short Story Review: THE MARTIAN OBELISK, by Linda Nagata

 

 

While I enjoy reading post-apocalyptic scenarios, I’m not very sanguine about stories describing a slow descent toward the end of the world as we know it, even though, perversely enough, the quiet despair of a foreseeable end touches me far more deeply than any account of massive upheavals and their aftermath. So I was not certain I would appreciate this story about a dying Earth, but my curiosity to try the writing of Linda Nagata, an author I’ve often seen mentioned with great appreciation, won over any misgivings I might have had.  I’m very happy about my perseverance now, because The Martian Obelisk is a wonderful story.

 

THE MARTIAN OBELISK, by Linda Nagata

(click on the link to read the story online)

 

Earth is slowly dying, not with a bang but with a whimper, as the saying goes: a long history of planetary neglect caused a series of natural disasters that changed for the worse the face of the planet, and naturally evolving diseases (together with a few lab-grown ones) decimated the population.  Wars and terroristic attacks did the rest, killing humanity’s drive to move forward even before actually snuffing out life itself.

We are a brilliant species […] Courageous, creative, generous – as individuals. In larger numbers we fail every time.

In this dismal scenario the main character, Susannah Li-Langford, once a renowned architect, has been busy for close to two decades with a project to build an obelisk on the surface of Mars: after a few tragically unsuccessful colonization attempts, all that remains on Mars are automated construction machines, and with the financing of wealthy Nathaniel Sanchez Susannah is creating, by remote, a white-tiled spire on the red planet, a memento of the human race that will endure even once all life on Earth will have ceased to exist, or to leave a mark.  But one day the remotely-operating machines warn her that there is something unusual happening…

As I said, I’m glad I read this story, about which I will not say anything further to let you enjoy it as it deserves: despite the bleakness there is a glimmer of hope in the end, and it’s worth enduring the sadness that comes before, because we might be doomed to failure, as Susannah muses, but the last word has not been written yet.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: PERSEPOLIS RISING (The Expanse #7), by James S.A. Corey

I received this novel from Orbit Books, through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to both of them for the opportunity to read this new installment in my very favorite space opera series.

Apart from a brief synopsis of the story, something you could find on GoodReads or the back cover of the book, there will be no spoilers in this review: more than any other, this is a novel that must be enjoyed with a minimum of foreknowledge.

At the end of Babylon’s Ashes, as many narrative threads seemed to have come to a conclusion, I wondered where the authors would next take the story, and after reading the novella Strange Dogs I had an inkling that the focus might be shifted toward the colonies established in the worlds beyond the alien portals accessed through Medina station. In a way, I was both right and wrong: the colonies – or rather, the world of Laconia, which figured prominently on that novella – are there, but not in the way I imagined.

For starters, the action takes places some 30 years after the events of Babylon’s Ashes, showing how the balance of power and the political landscape have changed in the aftermath of Marco Inaros’ faction’s attack on Earth: the home planet of humanity has recovered from the massive upheavals caused by the asteroid impacts, but its influence has somewhat lessened and is now shared between the inner worlds and the Transport Union, the successor of the OPA, now a legitimate association that monitors traffic to and from the colonies beyond the portals, with Belters having finally reached equal status with the rest of the system. The social and political balance might not be perfect, but they are certainly better than they were in the past.

The crew of the Rocinante has gained two permanent members, ex marine Bobbie Draper and Clarissa “Peaches” Mao, once their adversary and now Amos’ engineering buddy. Through the years in which they worked for the Union the six have coalesced into an easy family, so that Holden and Naomi’s announcement that they are going to retire, and leave the ship to the others, is received with a mix of happiness for the couple and the well-deserved rest they’ve earned, and sadness at the loss of a piece of their group.  It was something that troubled me, as well, because I wondered how removing these two from the equation would change the dynamics aboard the ship – and the narrative as well.

A worry quickly forgotten, though, since the Solar System finds itself faced with an unforeseen menace: in the decades since he carried a third of Mars’ naval forces (and a protomolecule sample) through the Laconia gate, former Admiral Duarte – now self-elected High Consul – has created a powerful empire that he means to extend to the rest of the explored worlds, starting with the Sol system through a surprise attack on Medina station, with a giant ship that’s a hybrid between Martian technology and applied protomolecule tech.  What follows is a huge game change, a series of events that transform the face of the story as we knew it until now: if, in the tv series inspired by these books, the dividing line between the events of books 1 and 2 was titled “Paradigm Shift”, here we encounter another shift, one of massive proportions that will in all probability encompass the final two volumes of The Expanse.

Change is indeed the focus of the story here, and primarily the changes in the characters: the people of the Roci have grown comfortable with each other, and of course they have grown older, so that a good portion of their thoughts or good-natured exchanges focus on the small indignities of advancing age that seem to afflict both people and ship, as if they were one and the same.  Seeing them affected by the passing of time was something of a surprise for me, because we tend to think about characters as somewhat physically immutable, but these people accept it with equanimity and with the awareness that they can overcome anything as long as they keep taking care of each other and of the Roci, because – as a bulkhead plaque reminds them – doing that will ensure that they will always come home.  It was the slightly melancholic, bittersweet mood that accompanies these first glimpses of the Rocinante crew that made me realize how fond I’ve grown of them, how they have become real to me, not unlike flesh and blood people, and how much I care about what happens to them. And trust me, here a LOT happens to them…

However, the original crew does not enjoy the spotlight here, at least not all of the time, since the point of view shifts between them and some new characters, most notably Drummer and Singh.  The former we already met as second-in-command to Fred Johnson at Tycho station, while here she’s the president of the Transport Union, a very influential woman facing some hard choices once the Laconian invasion starts.  I quite liked Drummer, her no-nonsense approach to power that comes both from her origins as a Belter and her past as an OPA operative, and I felt for her when she had to compromise some of her hard-won principles for the greater good.  For Drummer, the only bright light in this gloomy situation comes from the shrewd advice of a greatly beloved character who manages to steal the brief scenes where she appears, her keen intelligence and foul-mouthed expletives undimmed by age: the verbal confrontation between the two women, different in age, background and political views are nothing short of delightful.

Colonel Singh, on the other hand, is a newcomer to the Expanse’s cast: a bright young Laconian officer on the rise, he’s sent to Medina to act as governor and facilitate the “transition” in government.  He’s a very interesting person, mostly because of the dichotomy between his kindness as loving husband and doting father and the hardness he needs to exert as a soldier of the conquering empire.  His story-arc brought me to alternate between compassion and hostility, even though I understood that the less savory aspects of his personality were the product of his indoctrination.  In this he’s very much like the other Laconians, not much different from anybody else on the surface, but dramatically so in outlook and psychology: the few glimpses of the society built by Duarte on Laconia offer a quite chilling context for the way these people think and act, for the deeply rooted certainty they harbor about being right, about being able to win over the rest of humanity to their way of seeing things.

This new story-arc in The Expanse series promises to rise in intensity far above the previous ones, and considering how outstandingly amazing they have been so far, we are in for a remarkable journey: given the total, not-coming-up-for-air immersion I enjoyed here, I know the remaining two volumes will prove even better.  And I can hardly wait…

 

My Rating: