Reviews

Short Stories Review: THE LIVING DEAD 2 Sampler, edited by John Joseph Adams

The zombie theme has never been more actual as it is these days, with literature and both screens – the big and the small one – often employing it for stories, although it’s difficult to find tales that try to look beyond the far-too-easy shock of blood and gore, focusing rather on the psychology of characters and their reaction to the apocalypse they are desperately trying to survive.   Recently I discovered this BAEN FREE LIBRARY book showcasing some of the stories contained in one of two larger anthologies dedicated to the living dead, and decided to take a look: some of the offerings were quite weird – like the one that sees events from the point of view of an Amish community (“Rural Dead” by Bret Hammond), or the one whose premise is that all of humanity dies and wakes up as zombies, and follows the plight of a family as they try to get on with their non-lives as much as they can (“Who We Used to Be” by David Moody) – but a few truly left their mark on my imagination, my favorites being the two I’ve chosen to showcase in this review.

The reason they appealed to me is that in both instances we can still see the humanity in these living dead, because, as the editor reminds us in the preface, zombies might become our enemies, but they are “enemy that used to be us, that we can become at any time”, and as such they should not be only something to fear.

FLOTSAM & JETSAM by Carrie Ryan (the author of The Forest of Hands and Teeth, a book I’ve often seen mentioned and been curious about) deals with the beginning of the zombie plague, and as such piqued my interest, since I find origin tales much more fascinating than the actual aftermath, probably because of the early imprinting due to Stephen King’s The Stand.     In the editor’s preface to the story, we learn that Ryan wanted to show the outbreak from an enclosed point of view, a claustrophobic one I’m tempted to say, so that from the initial idea of a plane being constantly turned away from airports, the author moved to a lifeboat from a cruise ship, and the two survivors in it.

We are given to understand that the zombie plague hit as the two young men were on a cruise, together with friends, and that when all hell broke loose they found their way on the raft, which at the beginning of the story is still drifting near the ship, with the fugitives hoping against hope that the carnage going on aboard the ship might be brought under control.   As the days go on, dwindling supplies and increasing despair take their toll on the two men, particularly because one of them was bitten during the mad dash toward safety, and he acknowledges – after an understandable period of denial – that he will turn and become a danger to his friend.

The story is focused on hope, and on the way it can be a two-edged sword: what made it stand out from the other offerings was the stark, lucid observation of the characters’ feelings and reactions, and particularly of the way in which the initial aversion, fueled by the close quarters, turns into something quite different. It’s not a happy story, or one with a happy ending, either, but it’s very much worth reading.

My Rating:  

THE DAYS OF FLAMING MOTORCYCLES by Catherynne M. Valente, besides being an amazingly unexpected story, represents my first sample of this author’s writing and makes me understand why so many fellow bloggers speak so highly of her works.     In the author’s own words, the idea of this story came from the notion of the “quiet apocalypse”, not so much the raging inferno that seems to be mandatory in this kind of account, but rather “an apocalypse you just have to live through and find a way to co-exist with”.

The main (and only, to say the truth) character here is Caitlin Zielinski, a young woman living in deserted Augusta, Maine, a virtual ghost town where only the zombies remain: she has chosen to stay because of her zombified father, a man who was, when alive, violent and irascible, and now seems only a pitiable creature, one that still dwells in the house they shared and tries, with mournful moaning that seems more lament than menace, to call out the name of his daughter, as a last thread of the humanity he doesn’t want to let go of.

Valente’s zombies are indeed a different breed: they try to attack the living, of course, but one can escape them with sufficient nimbleness and speed – what differentiates these living dead from the more widely known variety is the spark of humanity that seems to be still present in them, compelling them to remain close to the places they frequented when alive, and even showing a sort of melancholic yearning for their past lives, and loved ones: the pivotal scene where Valente shows a sort of… communal service (for want of a better word), in which the zombies seem to mourn all they have lost, is a very powerful one, and it moved me to compassion in a way that I would never have thought possible for these creatures.  It’s a scene best read on one’s own rather than described, and it changed my perception of zombies in a major way.

Touching, poignant and wonderfully written.

My Rating: 

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Short Story: A GOOD HOME, by Karin Lowachee

 

 

A GOOD HOME, by Karin Lowachee

(click on the link to read the story online)

 

Some years ago I read a novel from Karin Lowachee – Warchild – whose main focus was on post-traumatic syndrome: in that case it was the story of a young boy captured by pirates, abused and bound by force to their way of life.  It came therefore as no surprise that this story concerned the difficult return to normality after the ravages of PTSD, but in this case the subject is an android.  Mark, that’s the name it was identified with, is the sole survivor of his platoon – all of them androids built by the military to fight in an unspecified war in space – and despite the re-programming he underwent he’s still in shock and does not speak.  A human veteran, Tawn, whose spinal injury forced him in a wheelchair, accepts to act as… well, tutor for Mark and to help him move forward toward a more integrated existence, despite the protests of his neighbors – somehow afraid for their children’s safety – and his mother, terrified beyond reason that Mark might one day hurt or kill her son.

Mark does not speak, although he’s able to, and he seems to remain in a semi-catatonic state for most of the time, only showing some reactions when thunderstorms move over the area: that’s when his repressed memories flare up and Tawn finds him curled up on the floor, a tearless keening issuing from him.  It’s a long, difficult road for both of them, and one that might lead nowhere, but Tawn keeps insisting, probably for the unexpressed reason that it takes a broken person to reach out to another one, and the author manages to convey the slowly building rapport between man and android even beyond the need for words.  There is no conclusion as it is, no ‘happy ending’, but the glimmer of hope that Mark might find his way again is there, and it’s enough.

A Good Home is a poignant, if restrained, story: Karin Lowachee knows how to deal with hurt people without recurring to easy sentimentality or forced pathos, and this story confirms it quite well.  Well worth reading.

 

My Rating: 

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Short Story Review: THE FACE IN THE WINDOW (Powder Mage 0.7), by Brian McClellan

Another fateful meeting is at the core of this story, that between Taniel and Ka-poel, two of the main characters from the original trilogy: Field Marshal Tamas’ son lands on the coast of Fatrasta (the land we get to know better in the new novel Sins of Empire) to learn more about the world, presumably, but no sooner has he set foot on solid ground that he learns Fatrasta has rebelled against the Kez in search of independence, and Taniel promptly enlists in the army to fight the Kez, against whom he holds a bloody grudge, and also to prove his mettle.

The Fatrastan rebels don’t fare so well against their oppressors at first, and the only advantage they have is the chosen battle ground: the Tristan Basin is a huge expanse of treacherous, deadly marshland peopled by fierce beast like swamp dragons – reptiles as big as a horse, capable of snapping a man in two with their powerful jaws.  Unfortunately the Kez are in greater numbers, they are better prepared and – worse – they have a Privileged sorceress with them, which turns Taniel’s first encounter with them into a life-and-death confrontation.  Only his training and the help of the mute red-haired girl he’ll later know as Ka-poel can make the difference in his chances for survival.  Taniel’s goal of killing the Privileged through his powder mage ability of aiming truly at a great distance will be the turning point of this initial skirmish, and will also be his first success as a magic-enhanced sharp-shooter.

I found this story very interesting on several levels: first, I learned more about Fatrasta and the road toward the independence that is a given fact by the time in which Sins of Empire takes place. There are a few details here that will be expanded in Brian McClellan’s latest novel, not least the first glimpse about the Palo inhabitants of the marshland, and the fierce determination of the oppressed Fatrastans.    Even more appealing is the encounter between Taniel and Ka-poel, one that starts on the wrong footing as the young man is initially unable to determine if this strange girl is a friend or a foe; as their understanding of each other grows, despite Ka-poel’s inability to speak, the bond that starts to form between them is forged through the need to defeat a common enemy and a slowly building trust.

What most caught my attention, though, was a closer look into Taniel’s personality: my first impression after reading the first book of the saga, Promise of Blood, is that of a somewhat objectionable person, one with a tendency toward… well, not exactly whining, but still one with some huge chips on his shoulder.  Now that I’ve learned more about what made him the person we later meet in the full novel, I think there is much more to Taniel than meets the eye and having by now read the second volume, The Crimson Campaign, I feel more inclined to cut him some slack.    Clearly, one of his problems might stem from the fact that it’s not easy to be the son of such a famous man as Field Marshal Tamas, and that he wants to prove himself because of his own qualities instead of enjoying some reflected light from his father.  And a very enlightening look at his developing personality comes from the very end of this story, where he contemplates his first kill and the effect it had on him:

 

You’ll feel guilty about that first cold, calculating kill. […] You’ll feel guilty on the second one, too, said his father’s voice. And the next. I lost that guilt around my twentieth, and I think part of my humanity died with it. Hopefully, my boy, you’ll keep it longer than I did.

“I didn’t,” Taniel whispered.

 

It’s always a pleasant surprise when I find my opinions changed by some new information, and more than ever I’m intrigued by this series and its fascinating facets.

 

My Rating: 

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Short Story Review: CRYSTAL HOLLOWAY AND THE FORGOTTEN PASSAGE, by Seanan McGuire

 

Every time I start a story by Seanan McGuire I know there are good chances that she will be able to rip my heart to pieces: her shorter works seem to concentrate and distill the feelings she wants to convey into a more powerful, more effective mix, and “Crystal Holloway” is no exception.

CRYSTAL HOLLOWAY AND THE FORGOTTEN PASSAGE

(click on the link to read the story online)

It’s a story about finding secret passages to other worlds, or dimensions, something McGuire has explored more deeply in her recent “Wayward Children” series, but here the place where the protagonist Crystal finds herself is less dark, more conventionally magical: at some point the character mentions C.S. Lewis’ world of Narnia, and the comparison holds, since the land of Otherways is more like a fairyland than a dark mirror of our own primary world.

There are dangers here, granted, and young Crystal has become a sort of super-hero for the land, battling evil creatures like the dire bats we see in the opening of the story, and fighting side by side with humanoid rabbit Chester and the arachnoid Naamen.  She’s been able to move back and forth between worlds, but now that she is reaching her sixteenth year she feels the pull of this magical place, “a strange, beautiful, terrible world, with its talking spiders and its deadly, scheming roses” and she’s considering whether to stay permanently or return to her old life.  That is, until something happens that changes things – and Crystal – forever…

This story delves into the old dilemma between reality and fiction, between the need to believe in magic and the pressures from everyday responsibilities, and it resonates deeply with people, like me, who love being taken elsewhere by the skilled words of a storyteller.  How many times we, lovers of speculative fiction, have been told that we “need to stick to reality”?  How many times our reading choices have been branded as childish and silly?

That’s what this short story wants to show, that no one should have to make that choice, that we should be able to move freely between worlds – the imagined and the real – with the same ease as when we move from one room to another.  That there is no stigma attached to the need for dreams.

Sadly, there seem always to be some Truth Fairies, ready to warn us that “You can’t be part of two worlds forever. The heart doesn’t work like that. There isn’t room, any more than there’s room in a mouth for two sets of teeth. Baby teeth fall out. Childhoods end. That’s how adult teeth, and adult lives, find the space to grow.”

And Truth Fairies can be cruel indeed….

 

My Rating: 

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Short Story Review: FOR SOLO CELLO – op. 12, by Mary Robinette Kowal

 

My previous experience with M.R. Kowal’s writing has been through her Glamourists’ series, novels set in an alternate Regency era where magic (or glamour) allows skilled people to weave long-lasting illusions literally out of thin air, and the characters move in a genteel, refined world where even hard reality is viewed through a sort of filter.   So imagine my surprise when I discovered that this story is steeped in harsh realism and based on terrible choices…

FOR SOLO CELLO – op. 12, by Mary Robinette Kowal

(click on the link to read the story online)

Julius is a famous cellist, a performer of world renown, but an unspecified accident deprived him of his left hand – a tragedy of terrible proportions for someone like him.  It’s been two weeks since the amputation, and Julius is still struggling with its aftermath, the phantom pains in the missing hand and, worse still, the end of his career.   At home his wife Cheri is dealing with problems of her own: after a number of miscarriages, her current pregnancy seems to be moving along well, and despite the trepidation due to past experiences she’s looking forward to the arrival of their baby, especially since it might offer Julius a new perspective in life.

When Julius is contacted by his agent Leonard, he faces the meeting with barely contained rage and scorn, because the end of his days as a cello performer colors his every interaction with the world, but Leonard has some amazing news for him: there is a possibility of re-growing his hand.  It’s an outlawed procedure, one that can be carried out only in countries where it’s not been banned, and consists in the graft of a blastema bud.  The only catch in the whole scenario is that the grafted tissue must be compatible with the receiver, which means that only an embryo containing Julius’ DNA will be viable for the blastema bud.

And there is only one place where that will have to come from….

As I said, this disturbing little story of impossible choices was an amazing surprise in light of what I considered Ms. Kowal’s style: clearly she has many more arrows in her quiver than I could imagine, and that makes me appreciate her and her writing even more. Even if this short story chilled me to the bone.

 

My Rating: 

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Short Story Review: THE GIRL FROM HRUSH AVENUE (Powder Mage 0.5), by Brian McClellan

My exploration of Brian McClellan’s stories that act as prequels to Promise of Blood continues…

This is the story of how Taniel (Field Marshal Tamas’ son) and Vlora (Tamas’ ward and later on Taniel’s fiancée) met for the first time as children.  Vlora was, to my deepest chagrin, something of a secondary character in Promise of Blood, while she was quite in the foreground in the first book of the new series, Sins of Empire, and since I liked her quite a bit I was of course curious to know more about her.  Interesting as it is, this short story felt somewhat weaker than its predecessors, and did not involve me like the other ones.

Ten year old orphan Vlora is living in a sort of foster home, with other girls like her, but she’s hardly interested in ‘normal’ girlish activities: what truly attracts her are the weapons displayed outside gun smithies, and she relishes the smell of gunpowder, whose acrid taste fills her senses in a strange way.  The area of the Old City where Vlora lives has been marked as the territory of the Bulldog Twins, a couple of bullies who enjoy tormenting smaller and weaker kids: Vlora’s previous encounters with them taught her to avoid the two at any cost, and that’s the reason she is surprised when a kid her own age, whose books have been thrown in the gutter by the twins, decides to react and fight back.  The boy is Taniel, and he’s the one who will first speak to her about powder mages and their abilities.

If the story itself seemed more of a whimsy than a background filler, I liked the glimpses it offered of the city of Adopest and its seedier corners: as I’ve now come to expect from McClellan’s writing, the scenery takes shape before our eyes with cinematic quality and the reader can see the winding cobbled streets, the crowds milling about avoiding horses and carriages, the shopkeepers minding their wares.  Young Vlora knows this world intimately and its harshness has taught her how to survive: I could see here where her amazing resiliency comes from and it added a few more details to her character as I’ve come to know it from Sins of Empire, but still there is not much more to this short tale than that.

Still, this world remains a fascinating one and I’m certain that these little bits of information will enhance my enjoyment of the Powder Mage trilogy, while they certainly make me look forward to starting on The Crimson Campaign, the second volume of the series.

 

My Rating: 

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Short Story Review: THE JAWS THAT BITE, THE CLAWS THAT CATCH, by Seanan McGuire

 

It’s no secret that seeing the name of Seanan McGuire (or that of alter ego Mira Grant, for that matter) engenders a sort of Pavlovian reaction in me, so that reading her works becomes a compulsive need.  When I saw that she was one of the contributors to LightSpeed Magazine I wasted no time in clicking the link to this story, another example – as if I needed it! – of this writer’s wide range of storytelling that knows no bounds.

THE JAWS THAT BITE, THE CLAWS THAT CATCH

(click on the title to read the story online)

In this instance she retraces a well-known literary background, with the unnamed main character leaving the safety of the woods that are her home to embark on a quest to save her captive sister.  It took me a while to understand the exact context here, probably because I’m not all that familiar with it (it’s been a while since I read that book), but little by little the clues piled up and helped me see where McGuire was headed: once there, it became a fun ride – that is, as fun as this author’s delightfully evil mind can provide, of course.

Describing the character’s journey would give away too much, and this is a story that must be experienced as it unfolds, so I will concentrate on some of the images that caught my attention, like the description of the mist in her home woods, a mist that’s dangerous and deadly: “the mist threw up a tendril, trying to grab the bird’s leg and drag it down”.  Once a hapless creature is trapped in it, it becomes easy prey for scavengers that are not affected by the mist itself: as an introduction to a cruel, dangerous world this brief sentence works quite effectively to set the overall tone of the story.

Opposite this mysterious woods stands a city, the place where the protagonist’s sister had been taken, and there’s an interesting contrast here, because we learn that the city dwellers look on the inhabitants of the woods as monsters, therefore as less worthy of consideration – and survival. The bitter musings of the character say a great deal about this state of affairs as she considers that “monsters didn’t have homes to defend or sisters they loved more than life itself. That would make us too much like them, and then we would be less effective as excuses for the things they did to themselves”.

If you never read anything by Seanan McGuire, I urge you to try this story: it will give you a good insight on her style and writing “voice”, and I’m certain it will be an intriguing journey.

 

My Rating: