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The October Daye Series – Seanan McGuire

When I discovered the Newsflesh Trilogy by Mira Grant, I learned that she is the alter-ego for Seanan McGuire, Urban Fantasy writer, and I was of course curious: until that moment, my attempts at reading this particular genre had not ended well – the books I happened to pick up seemed centered on repeating clichés and cookie-cutter characters, so that I was convinced Urban Fantasy was not my cup of tea.  But Mira Grant’s writing prompted me to give the genre another try: now, after seven books in the October Daye series, I’m very happy I did, because Seanan McGuire is the kind of author who gives Urban Fantasy a good name, to paraphrase the old song.

October “Toby” Daye is a San Francisco private investigator, and also a changeling – half human and half fae, therefore never fully belonging to either world: the fae generally despise mixed bloods, their contempt in inverse proportion to the percentage of fae blood in any changeling, while humans must be kept in ignorance of the differences – some subtle, some less so – in their appearance, because the secret of faerie’s existence is to be kept at all costs.  When we meet Toby for the first time, she’s chosen her human side and tries to build a normal life for herself: a husband, a child, a job she enjoys.  But one of her investigations crosses the purposes of a powerful fae who transforms her into a fish, condemning her to several years of this limbo while the world goes on without her.  Once the enchantment wears off, Toby’s family has adapted to her sudden disappearance and moved on, and she finds herself alone and adrift, with no clear purpose in life and a defeated attitude that leaves little room for hope in her future.  It’s only through her reluctant involvement with the fae world, due to a brutal murder she’s asked to investigate, that she starts – slowly and painfully – to come out of her shell, and to gain a new lease on life as she rebuilds herself literally from scratch, collecting friends and allies along the way.

The first book in the series, though still fascinating, feels somewhat slow,  so I urge any potential reader to overlook that and to stay on board for the ride – it’s the same advice I followed when I started, and I’m glad I did: this series gets better and better with each following book.  The world-building expands in concentric circles, creating a fascinating tapestry out of the intersecting – but never really touching – realities of our primary world and faerie, and presenting a huge variety of fae and changelings, all with their individual traits that make them alien in appearance and abilities, and at the same time very human in their passions and desires.  With each following book I’ve become more and more invested in these stories and characters, in the parallel world of faerie, with its complicated, often cruel politics and interweaving alliances, with its powerful allure. And of course I’ve become invested in Toby, her slowly growing family and her evolving personality – the clear trend of this series is growth, and I’ve found my initial patience more than amply rewarded.

What makes Toby special? First there is her single-mindedness: once she sets on a task, she pursues it with relentless determination, learning from the mistakes she makes along the way. Yes, she’s not perfect, and that’s another detail that endeared her to me – she’s flawed, and fallible and accident-prone: unlike the cookie-cutter heroines I mentioned above, Toby is far from the all-powerful-ninja-warrior that seems the norm in this genre. She gets hurt, she bleeds, and she pays dearly for missing important clues, or for trusting people she shouldn’t or not listening to sound advice.  There’s something approaching a death wish in her, more evident at the beginning and lessening as the story goes on. Or if not a death wish, then a grim determination in completing her chosen tasks, in fulfilling the obligations she takes upon herself with little or no regard for personal consequences, an attitude that speaks volumes about her psychological make up and also explains the strong loyalty she engenders in the individuals gathering around her like planets around a sun.

What’s more, Toby manages all that in spite of her shortcomings as a changeling – on the contrary, she turns what pureblood fae consider a limitation into her main strength: she can go where individuals of both worlds cannot, she can perform feats denied to others. In short, Toby non only does not make any excuses for what she is not, but shows the world – both worlds – that strength can come from those very differences.  And she pays the price for it every day, by giving of herself for the sake of others, with constant demonstrations of dogged selflessness.

With these premises, and McGuire’s fresh outlook on the genre, it’s hardly surprising that these books are gathering increasing success and acclaim: my direct experience is that they deserve it in full.  Let yourselves be captured: you will not regret it.

My Rating: 8,5/10

The Newsflesh Trilogy – Mira Grant

Mira Grant (that is, Seanan McGuire) just announced the arrival of a new short story in her Newsflesh universe, so – in what is becoming something of a tradition for me – I thought about retracing my reading experience with her previous novels.

Zombies were not exactly my kind of narrative trope: not on the screen and certainly not in book form. So I’m still unsure about what made me pick up the first book of Mira Grant’s Newsflesh Trilogy: probably some glowing review that underlined how different it was from the usual fare – no matter the reason, after the first few pages I was hooked, and at the same time discovered a new author, one that’s quickly entered my “buy whatever comes out” list.

Mira Grant is the pen name of Urban Fantasy author Seanan McGuire – I plan on recapping soon her still ongoing, successful series about private investigator October Daye, but for now I’ll concentrate on the alter ego who created this stunning, ground-breaking trilogy: Feed, Deadline and Blackout.

The premise: twenty-odd years from now the world will be dramatically changed by a zombie epidemic whose origins come from the accidental interaction of two experimental viral cures for cancer and the common cold. Exposure to this mutated virus (Kellis-Amberlee, from the names of the two scientists working on the projects) does indeed cure the targeted ailments but also resuscitates the dead – in the Newsflesh world it’s called “amplification”.  There are two short stories that expand on this premise, and I recommend them both to better understand the train of events: one is Countdown (the tale of the incident that started it all) and the other is San Diego 2014: the last stand of the California Browncoats (the start of the epidemic seen through the eyes of the famous convention’s participants).

The ground-breaking choices I mentioned come from the fact that the usual bloody scenarios of a zombie apocalypse are strictly kept as background information: yes, the un-dead move around searching for victims – not so much to consume their flesh but rather to spread the contagion, in a sort of viral prime directive – and there are whole sections of the world made uninhabitable by the concentration of zombies, but what Mira Grant focuses on is not the cheap thrill of blood-and-gore images but rather the way people and society have changed because of the epidemic.

Amplification has forced people to completely review their way of living: houses have become fortresses capable of withstanding massive attacks from the un-dead; pets above a certain body weight – say a small dog – are out of the question, because above that limit they are subject to amplification just as humans are, and the phenomenon extends, of course, to other common animals as cows or horses, whose mass makes them as deadly as infected people.  And then there is the terrible choice that everyone must be prepared to face: when one of your loved ones, or friends, dies and then amplifies before your eyes, you have to decide between survival and the impulses of your heart.  How would that change the unwritten laws of society?  How would it affect ethics and morality?

Fear is therefore the main driving force of society: fear of the infected, of course, but also fear of excessive proximity or crowded areas – someone dying of a heart attack in a crowd could amplify and start a new outbreak; fear of contagion, that requires constant blood checks before entering any enclosed space, be it a coffee shop or one’s own home; fear of whatever and whoever can’t be controlled.  An enlightening quote summarizes the situation all too well: “...we have embraced the cult of fear, and now we don’t seem to know how to put it back where it belongs.”  Fear can also be a powerful means of control, because a scared and divided humanity is much more easily subdued – or lied to.

The antithesis of fear is truth, and its… paladins, for want of a better word, are bloggers: the first to recognize the threat of the virus and to spread the word when the government still hid behind carefully worded statements. Bloggers are, at the start of the story, a force to be reckoned with, and the new heroes of a world that keeps turning in upon itself with every passing day.  Enter Georgia and Shaun Mason, highly successful bloggers who have been selected, together with their team, to follow the presidential campaign of candidate Ryman: this represents an enormous opportunity for visibility, but it will also lead them along very unexpected and terrifying paths.

This is all I dare reveal about the story, because its hair-raising twists and turns must be discovered on their own: suffice it to say there is not one moment when the tension lets go, and where drama is delivered without pulling any punches – no matter how painful they can be to the readers.

What really matters, and what I can safely share here, is that it’s a fascinating look at a profoundly changed society, and also a character-driven narrative that will keep you on your toes from start to finish.

Not the easiest of books, granted, nor something I would recommend before bedtime either – but still I urge you to read them, because Mira Grant’s storytelling and powerful characters are worth the extra effort needed to find the necessary strength to do it.

My Rating: 8,5/10

The Expanse Trilogy – James S. A. Corey

James S.A. Corey is the pseudonym for authors Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, the first best known for his Long Price Quartet and Dagger and the Coin series, and the second for his collaboration with GRR Martin.  Together they have penned one of the best space opera series I ever read and, to my extreme satisfaction, are hard at work on a second one: talking with Mulluane from Dragons, Heroes and Wizards about the new book, I thought it was a good idea to share a few details about the first three volumes, so here we go…

What makes these books stand out is the human dimension of backgrounds and characters: the words space opera often make us think about vast empires, galaxy-spanning wars and wondrous technology, but this is not the case here. The theatre where the action unfolds is our own Solar System in an advanced stage of colonization, where the older and more established outposts – like the Moon or Mars – enjoy a comfortable way of life, while the newer ones, like the civilization growing in the Asteroid Belt, still deal with problems like microgravity and its deep effects on human physiology, or the rising prices of air and water in a hostile environment.  Political and economical tensions are always one step away from flaring into all-out conflict, and there are forces working – more or less covertly – to tip the balance one way or the other.  Add to that a few realistic details like communications lag across vast distances or the problems of space travel, which requires a constant battle against the pain of acceleration – endured through the use of drugs – and you have a very relatable universe, as are the characters that people it.

Summing up the story is far from easy, especially when trying to avoid any spoilers, so I’m not even going to try. The first book, Leviathan Wakes, follows mainly two characters: Miller – a middle-aged police officer who has lost all his drive and motivations, and wakes up only when what looks like an open-and-shut case he’s been assigned turns into something else, something both suspicious and frightening; and Holden, ex military now working on an ice cargo hauler: he’s the kind of person who wants to do the right thing, to be a good guy, and more often than not makes huge mistakes, with unpredictable consequences. The novel alternates chapters between these points of view until the two men meet and face an unforeseen danger that adds some touches of horror to the story.  The other two books, Caliban’s War and Abaddon’s Gate, expand on this core theme, widening the picture to include complex political scheming tied with economic interests, and convoluted games of power that still dare to go on despite an all-encompassing menace.

All this, however, is just background – a solid background, granted, that helps move the story along, often in unexpected directions. The real focus is on characters, on the way they deal with events, on the way physiological and mental changes affect people from the different habitats where human expansion brought them.  One of the interesting aspects I encountered is indeed in these differences, because the physiological adaptation that has made the Belters thinner and taller than Earth norm, seems to have created a sort of racial differentiation that goes beyond skin color. In other words, we might go to space someday, but we will still bring our short-sightedness and prejudices along with us…

Most importantly, though, the novels deal with choices, with the often tragic consequences engendered by those choices, even when they are made with the best of intentions. Because we all know what paves the road to Hell, after all…

Holden, and his crew of almost-rogues, embody that concept very well: enmeshed against their will in something too big for them to handle, they try to do their best with the limited options at their disposal. In the first book there’s a marked antithesis between Holden and Miller, between idealism and the need to set things right on one side, and tired cynicism on the other, the bitter acceptance of the impossibility of seeing the “good guys” win. Despite their differences – or maybe because of them – these two men form a strange alliance that will be the one of the driving forces of the story.

This focus on humanity goes on in the following books, exploring more deeply the characters of Holden’s crew – a closely-knit group for whom I felt an immediate attachment – and several other players, big and small, who feel as fleshed-out and solid as the main protagonists. A special mention goes to the female characters, that the authors created without using a single strand of cliché in their DNA: Naomi, of the Rocinante’s crew, smart, though and outstandingly excellent in her job, gifted with a wry sense of humor; Martian marine Bobbie, steadfast and powerful, a fighter in more ways than one, but still possessed of a softer side; shrewd politician Avarasala, who knows how to wield her power, and can cuss like a hardened sailor; minister Anna, gifted with a steel resolve under the caring attitude.  They are far from perfect, but I liked them exactly for this reason – because they feel real.

Given that each of the separate books of the trilogy managed to raise already hight stakes, it’s hardly surprising I was waiting with feverish anticipation to read the next installment (the first in a new trilogy, according to what I’ve read online): even though the main narrative threads have been brought to an end, many more have appeared and they would seem to point to a further widening of the picture, both in scope and in setting.   Cybola Burn, the fourth volume, came out on June 5th and so far it looks very promising so… stay tuned for the forthcoming review!

My Rating: 9/10

Revisiting old favorites: The Vorkosigan Saga by Lois McMaster Bujold

Some time ago I embarked on a re-read of this series, one of my all-time favorites, and discovered that the intervening years have only  enhanced my enjoyment of the story, of Ms. Bujold’s writing style and of her approach to important social issues.

It might be somewhat difficult to characterize this series: some have labeled it as “space opera”, others as “military sci-fi”, and so on, but the truth is that there is a bit of every sub-genre one can think about in Bujold’s work, combined into a well-structured, compelling story that grows and expands with each successive book, gaining in power and depth as it entertains its readers.

The hero – or better, anti-hero – of the saga is  Miles Vorkosigan, born with serious physical impediments on a world that makes strength and military prowess the pillars of society. Far from being crushed by his disabilities, Miles fights against them all his life, driven by the need to prove himself, sometimes beyond the limits of human endurance. He does indeed manage, through sheer force of will and great intelligence, to emerge and carve a place for himself, all the while regaling us with fun, exciting and wonderful adventures.

What I love most about Ms. Bujold’s writing is that it flows along simple lines while at the same time managing to convey deep meanings and touch on significant themes: the mark of her ability is in the down-to-earth approach that needs no preaching to drive her meaning through.

Above all, Bujold’s work is… well, “trans-generational” is the best way I can describe it: Miles’ adventures can be quite satisfying both to young adults (to whom they can teach a great deal without ever being pedantic) as well as to older people. The style of writing is such that it can be enjoyed no matter your age or your preferences.

One of the reasons this character grows so quickly on his audience is that we look at the world through his eyes, experience his outer troubles and inner turmoil in a direct way. Far from self-commiserating on his shortcomings (even though they cut deeply), Miles faces them with wry, sarcastic humor that’s often more mature than his years. What’s more important, he’s not one those stereotyped “boy geniuses” that we often encounter in books and tv, the ones that breeze through obstacles as if they weren’t there, the ones, let’s admit it, that we love to hate.  Miles is fallible, he constantly doubts himself and he makes mistakes, sometimes fatal ones. His path is one of constant strife, against his shortcomings and against himself, and his victories are more often than not tainted by painful losses. This must indeed be one of the reasons Bujold’s readers learn to care so much about him.

Once I encountered a sentence that sums up quite effectively this character: he happens on people – usually unsuspecting ones – and he changes their lives forever, whether they want it or not. This is true both for the fictional people in the stories and for the readers, especially those – like me – who rediscover his old stories or greet new ones with the same enthusiasm reserved for a dear friend.