Reviews

IF IT BLEEDS, by Stephen King

In recent times I have gone back to reading the works of Stephen King after a long hiatus due to a few less-than-satisfactory novels, so now I’m looking forward to seeing what I missed so far. The more recent The Institute and The Outsider seemed to mark the return of the old “King magic”, and when I saw that one of the short stories included in this volume featured the character of Holly Gibney, who also had a role in Mr. Mercedes (another happy find), I wasted no time in acquiring If It Bleeds.

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The first story in this collection is MR. HARRIGAN’S PHONE and from the very first pages I could see that it was indeed a “vintage King” sort of tale.  Teenager Craig earns some pocket money by doing a few chores for eccentric neighbor Mr. Harrigan, whose habit of gifting Craig with lottery tickets finally pays with a huge win: to show his gratitude, Craig uses part of the money to buy an iPhone for Mr. Harrigan, whose initial disdain for technology quickly turns into fascination for the opportunities offered by the Web. At Harrigan’s sudden death, a sorrowful Craig decides to slip the phone into his friend’s jacket before the coffin is closed: what he would never have expected is to still be able to stay in communication with his old mentor – well, sort of, since this is a King story…

Mr. Harrigan’s Phone possesses the classic flavor of most of Stephen King’s narrative: first of all the story in set in a small town, peopled with the kind of quirky characters that are the author’s trademark; then there is the weird element of the phone calls going through even when the cellphone battery should be all but dead. Most important is of course the description of the world through the eyes of a growing teenager: King is one of the writers who can portray younger characters with both understanding and authenticity, and Craig is no exception, particularly in the poignant representation of his grief at the death of Mr. Harrigan, and the very human desire to hear the old man’s voice once again through the voicemail recording on the phone.  Last but not least is an interesting consideration on our relationship with technology and the way it’s changing us – to use old Mr. Harrigan’s own words:

Thoreau said that we don’t own things; things own us. Every new object – whether it’s a home, a car, a television, or fancy phone like that one – is something more we must carry on our backs.

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The second story, THE LIFE OF CHUCK, is a truly weird one and I struggled to understand it until the end, where everything became clear: for this reason I prefer to say as little as I can about it, since it must be appreciated first-hand.  This tale is composed of three separate parts that move backward in time and focus on the figure of Charles “Chuck” Krantz,  his too-short life and the way it affects the world.   There is a definite surreal quality to this story, and not just because it retraces time from what looks like the end of the universe to a fundamental episode in Chuck’s life.  The key to the whole scenario lies in understanding how our experiences contribute to the creation of the world around us and how they can influence it – even in ways we cannot imagine…

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IF IT BLEEDS, the longest piece in the anthology, is loosely connected to The Outsider in that it shows the existence of a creature similar to the novel’s shape-shifting predator, one thriving on the pain and anguish brought on by tragedies – and when there are none to feed on from, creating them to satisfy its hunger.  Private investigator Holly Gibney, now the head of the Finders Keepers agency, sets on a dangerous chase that might cost her her life.

My first encounter with Holly Gibney was in The Outsider and back then – before I read Mr. Mercedes, where her character appears for the first time – I was unable to truly appreciate her for lack of background information. Now that I know where she comes from and what makes her tick, I can say I enjoyed very much her personality, her constant struggle with the psychological problems afflicting her and her tenacity in overcoming them – not to mention her dogged determination in finding the creature and, if possible, freeing the world from the danger it represents, no matter the personal cost.   Where If It Bleeds is a unique blend of horror and detective work, its true strength lies in the depiction of Holly and the double struggle with the investigation on this elusive and dangerous individual on one side and with her not-so-understanding family on the other.  If nothing else, this story made it even more imperative that I read as soon as possible the other two novels following Mr. Mercedes, because I want to learn more about Holly.

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The last offering is RAT, a story imbued with a strong sensation of deja-vu, in the sense that there is a very ominous progression in the journey of struggling writer Drew Larson whose previous attempts at a full-length novel have ended in misery and depression.  One day Drew is struck by a fully-formed idea for a novel, and to be certain that no distractions will interfere with his creative processes, he retires to an isolated cabin in the mountains, where a huge storm and a dangerous bout of flu will threaten both his survival and his mental sanity.   

Anyone familiar with King’s own The Shining will feel certain that the sinister line-up of circumstances is bound to create the “perfect storm” that will have nothing to do with the one raging outside the cabin and everything to do with the man’s reactions to the dread of writer’s block.  Unlike Jack Torrance in The Shining, Larson is not besieged by his inner demons – apart, that is, from the terror of finding himself stuck again at a loss for the right words to express himself – but faces a weird encounter with the titular rat, and the possibility of  striking a fever-induced bargain with unforeseeable consequences…

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This collection represents the fourth volume in the journey of my “reconciliation” with Stephen King’s works, and the progression so far has proven to be quite positive. Let’s hope it keeps going strong 🙂

My Rating:

Reviews

Short Story: SINEW AND STEEL AND WHAT THEY TOLD, by Carrie Vaughn

 

SINEW AND STEEL AND WHAT THEY TOLD

Click on the link to read the story online

 

It’s beyond difficult to write about this story without saying anything about it that would constitute a spoiler, so the best way to try and persuade you to read it would be to quote its first sentence:

I am cut nearly in half by the accident. The surviving fibers of my suit hold me together. I am not dead.

Graff is a scout runner, from the ship Visigoth, and some catastrophic accident almost killed him, but that’s only the beginning of the whole journey, because once he’s retrieved by his shipmates and brought to the infirmary the real weirdness begins.

This short story is mostly played between three characters: Graff himself, doctor Ell and Captain Ransom. They have to come to terms with a momentous revelation, one that might change forever their perception of the past and inform their decisions for the future – no matter how their choices will go, there will be a huge change in the way the three relate to each other.

I liked Graff’s voice: it’s both humorous and self-deprecating and so very humanly scared of what the future will hold for him. Just as his true reason for being where he is, for doing what he does, is a poignant one that’s bound to resonate with everyone who loves stories…

Yes, I realized I’ve used a lot of words to say practically nothing, but if you choose to read this one you will understand why, and I hope you will love it just as much as I did.

Happy reading.

 

My Rating:

Reviews

Short Story: HELLO, HELLO, by Seanan Mcguire

 

Click on the link to read the story online

 

I never know what to expect from a Seanan McGuire’s short story: the examples I found until now touched such a wide range of subjects that each time it’s like opening a surprise package. The only constant is that the package’s contents are always intriguing.

In this case we follow the story of a neuro-linguist who designed a computer program able to turn spoken words into sign language and vice-versa, its first goal to keep an open communication channel with her deaf sister. This way anyone can talk with Tasha, the sister, through a computer-generated avatar and the persons on the other end might never know their counterpart has a speech and hearing impairment, and one of the benefits of the system – besides ease of communication between the sisters – is that the scientists’ children are growing up quite fluent in both regular speech and in ASL.

One day though, the woman finds her older child Billie talking to an unknown woman on the computer – a randomly generated avatar talking from Tasha’s home and apparently able to say only “Hello” over and over again. At first everyone is convinced that one of Tasha’s guests might have used the system without permission, and then they worry that something might have happened to Tasha herself – that is, until they finally speak with her and she says that nothing untoward happened in her home.  Meanwhile, the mystery calls keep happening at random, and each time the strange woman’s speech seems to improve – but the family’s puzzlement and worry reaches new levels, making them think about hackers or worse.

The truth comes out in the end and it’s an incredible, marvelous revelation – and a very unexpected one. I will leave you to discover it on your own….

McGuire did it again!

Reviews

Short Story: PRECIOUS LITTLE THINGS, by Adrian Tchaikovsky

 

Click on the link to read the story online

 

While looking online for interesting short stories, my attention was of course drawn by the name of Adrian Tchaikovsky, whose Children of Time was one of my most interesting discoveries, and by the little note about this story being a sort of prequel for the novel Made Things, a review of which recently appeared on Tammy’s blog.   And what an intriguing story this one turned out to be!

I find myself wary of sharing the details of Precious Little Things, because it’s filled with amazing surprises, so I will try and remain vague about it, hoping at the same time to pique your curiosity and compel you to read this story, which is quite different from Tchaikovsky’s previous work I sampled before.

For starters it’s more fantasy oriented, and there is a good deal of magic in it, the kind of magic that can breathe life into the most unusual things, and so create an incredible civilization as different as possible from anything one might imagine: there is a flavor here that reminded me of fairy stories, where humans are of little consequence and other creatures take the center stage – now that I think about it, the characters portrayed here are not so unlike the spiders in Children of Time, and their society is as singular and as enthralling as that of the arachnids.

It’s also a story about discoveries and the courage to look beyond the limits of one’s world and to imagine first and explore later what lies out there, because – as one character tells us at some point – “boundaries [are] things to be overcome, not lived within”.

My initial curiosity toward the longer work Made Things has now solidified into great interest thanks to this delightful story.

 

My Rating:

Reviews

Short Story: NIGHTINGALE (from Galactic North), by Alastair Reynolds

Alastair Reynold’s Revelation Space trilogy is one of the most intriguing (and challenging!) reads I ever encountered, but it happened several years ago so that time has blurred my memory of it considerably, and the complexity of the narrative context in which this space opera series is set made it difficult for me to retain more than a few of the myriad details of that multifaceted tapestry. A re-read is something I might enjoy one of these days, and I think this collection of longer stories from that same universe might be the best way to re-introduce myself with the characters and the wide, sweeping background they are moving in.

If the previous story in this collection, Grafenwalder’s Bestiary, was not exactly a cheery read, Nightingale proved to be a veritable slide into horror: I don’t recall ever feeling such depth of dread with Reynolds’ works before, even when he described the awful transformations visited on flesh and metal by the Melding Plague. Still, it was the kind of story it’s impossible to tear one’s eyes away from, and despite the novella-length of the work I rushed through it in no time at all.

In the aftermath of a bloody war between two factions called Northern Coalition and Southland Militia, the planet of Sky’s edge has found some sort of balance, although the scars from the conflict are not completely healed: one of the items still left unchecked concerns the need to bring to justice the infamous Colonel Jax, whose name is associated with unspeakable atrocities. For some time it’s been believed that Jax had died, but Martinez, an older, wealthy man, has obtained fresh information about the Colonel’s presence aboard a hospital ship that was active during the war, the Nightingale. Gathering a small group of specialists, Martinez enrols them as a strike team to board the powered-down Nightingale and retrieve Jax, presumably lying in suspended animation aboard the ship.

What looks like a fairly simple operation turns quickly into a nightmarish journey through a huge vessel that looks dormant but is not exactly unresponsive – a ship that during the conflict was managed by a high-level AI capable of conducting autonomously many of the tasks required from a human team of medics in a war zone. As the team journeys through the darkened, empty ship, the sense of dread keeps intensifying, not only because of the ever-increasing difficulties the group encounters in opening interconnecting airlocks, but because the Nightingale seems to be waking up in increments, reacting to the intruders’ actions and actively making their progress more difficult and dangerous. Until they find out the ultimate truth about Nightingale’s AI and the effects produced on a sentient, but artificial, mind by witnessing the horrors of war in the flesh, so to speak…

I will leave to you the discovery of the final reveal about the ship’s choice of building a war memorial that would equal the impact of Picasso’s Guernica in the conscience of humankind, and will only tell you to brace yourselves, because you will need it.

 

My Rating:

Reviews

Short Story: GRAFENWALDER’S BESTIARY (from Galactic North), by Alastair Reynolds

Alastair Reynold’s Revelation Space trilogy is one of the most intriguing (and challenging!) reads I ever encountered, but it happened several years ago so that time has blurred my memory of it considerably, and the complexity of the narrative context in which this space opera series is set made it difficult for me to retain more than a few of the myriad details of that multifaceted tapestry. A re-read is something I might enjoy one of these days, and I think this collection of longer stories from that same universe might be the best way to re-introduce myself with the characters and the wide, sweeping background they are moving in.

If it’s possible to feel intense, visceral hate for a fictional character, one that exists only in the pages of a book, then this is what I felt for Grafenwalder, the protagonist of this story. He’s one of the spoiled wealthy individuals belonging to the Circle, a club of collectors of rare animals: in the Circle, status is defined by the number of one-of-a-kind specimens one is able to collect, the members striving to outdo one another not only in the uniqueness of their find, but in the way the hapless creatures are displayed, so that the shock value of each presentation is often achieved at the expense of the captured being.

And I consciously use the word ‘being’ because the prizes Grafenwalder is so proud of are not necessarily animals as such – not that such exhibits would be less monstrous in that case, considering the thoughtless cruelty the man shows toward his captives – but also sentient creatures from different evolutionary paths, or former human beings twisted into nightmarish shapes by surgery or genetic modifications, to the point of not being recognizable as human anymore.

Lately, Grafenwalder found himself in competition with Ursula Goodglass, a recent member of the Circle and therefore, in his eyes, an outsider in need of a lesson in humility: when he learns that the woman acquired a rare amadryad at the same time he did, he bribes the transport’s captain to kill the creature destined to Goodglass, and once the brief satisfaction for this low trick does not yield the expected results he vows to shock her and everyone else with a truly unique specimen.

The genetically engineered beings called Denizens that were showcased in the story A Spy in Europa have now become something of a myth, but through a shady dealer Grafenwalder manages to acquire what might be the very last one, preparing a special glass cage where the conditions of pressure and temperatures found on Jovian satellite can be replicated: here is where the base nature of the man’s spirit is shown in all its disgusting detail, and the cruelty he visits on the poor Denizen made me sick to my stomach. But even the very rich and powerful are not exempt from retribution…

This is not an easy story to read – or at least it was not for me – but I appreciated how Reynolds managed to keep a sort of detachment from what he describes. Still, I’m going to have a few nightmares about this one for a while…

 

My Rating:

Reviews

Short Story: DILATION SLEEP (from Galactic North), by Alastair Reynolds

 

One of the main themes in the Revelation Space series is that of the Melding Plague, a cyber virus infecting the delicate nano circuitry of the implants people installed in their bodies, changing and re-shaping these implants into new configurations and negatively affecting the wearer.  In this story, a group of wealthy refugees from Yellowstone – one of the planets that were hit hardest by the plague – has taken to space in suspended animation, in the hope that the century of so of their travel away from the homeworld will allow scientists to find a cure, so they will be able to get back to their lives.  The ones less fortunate have either decided to place themselves in cryo-storage or to have the implants surgically removed.

Uri Sagdev is one the six crewmembers aboard ship whose stasis can be lifted should there be an emergency, and the ship does exactly that at the beginning of the story, interfacing with Uri through the likeness of his wife Katia: once Uri is over the worst of the revival process, the ship informs him that one of the other crewmembers was infected by the Melding Plague before departure, although the problem was undetected, and that Uri will have to operate on him to remove the altered implants before it’s too late: not even cryo-sleep is able to stop the infection and the man might die if they wait too long.

As Uri walks the deserted ship to get himself in better shape prior to the surgical procedure, however, he becomes increasingly aware of another presence – an impossibility, of course, because he’s the only one awake and mobile and there is no chance that a stowaway might have been hidden aboard for so long, without the basic means for survival. Still, there is definitely a shadowy presence haunting him…

Dilation Sleep is an edge-of-your-seat tale that will keep you guessing until the very unexpected reveal, a mix of science fiction and borderline horror that works very well and seems perfectly suited to this time of the year…  🙂

 

 

My Rating:

Reviews

The Violent Fae Blog Tour: The Troubled Child

 

Back to Ordshaw, the weird and many-layered city where anything is possible… My thanks to author Phil Williams for including Space And Sorcery in this blog tour dedicated to the conclusion of the first trilogy in this new Urban Fantasy series, comprising Under Ordshaw, Blue Angel, and The Violent Fae. Not forgetting the novella The City Screams.

(Just follow the links at the bottom of the post to learn more!)

To celebrate the release of The Violent Fae, the closing chapter of the Ordshaw series’ The Sunken City Trilogy, Phil Williams is sharing twelve short stories from the city of Ordshaw. The Ordshaw Vignettes are tiny insights into life in the UK’s worst-behaved city, each presenting a self-contained mystery.

You can read today’s story below. For the full collection, visit all the wonderful blogs in the tour, listed in the banner.

About Ordshaw and The Violent Fae

The Ordshaw series are urban fantasy thrillers set in a modern UK city with more than a few terrible secrets. The Violent Fae completes a story that began with Under Ordshaw and its sequel Blue Angel – following poker player Pax Kuranes’ journey into the Ordshaw underworld. Over the space of one week, Pax unravels mysteries that warp reality and threaten the entire city.

The Violent Fae will be available from Amazon on Kindle and in paperback from November 5th 2019.

If these vignettes are your first foray in Ordshaw, note that Under Ordshaw is on offer on Kindle in the US and UK between October 28th October – 1st November.

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And now, without further ado, here comes…

 

THE TROUBLED CHILD

A hard bang announced Lily’s collision with the door. The brutal sound conjured Viv into the room like a genie’s flash, her daughter down, big eyes trembling with tears. Viv skidded short of smothering Lily with love and concern, her gut warning her something more was amiss.
The door Lily had hit was closed. She glared at it accusingly. Hurt, yes, fighting back tears, a hand quivering near her already-swelling lip, but disappointed, too. She poked her jaw, probed. Then she noticed Viv and dropped her hand, eyes wide with worry. Found out.
“Sweetie.” Viv crouched with a pang of realisation, a gentle hand on her daughter’s shoulder. Had Lily run into the door hoping for another loose tooth, for a shiny pound coin? “Sweetie, it doesn’t work like that – you can’t – it has to happen naturally –”
Lily snapped her head away, refusing to hear it.
Viv guided her chin back around. “Let me see. Come on.”
Six years of midnight coughs, busted knees and broken glass, had taught Viv to hide her mothering fears. This one pushed the limits: a chipped front tooth, and blood oozing to the surface of Lily’s lip. It then spread like it had been waiting for an audience. Viv scrambled for a tissue before sweeping Lily into an embrace. Her touch broke the child’s defences and Lily sobbed.
“It’s okay, you’re okay,” Viv assured her. “But the tooth fairy needs your teeth to fall out on their own.”
Lily pushed back. Her eyes defiant, she hissed, “You don’t know. She told me.”
And suddenly Lily was off, running, leaving Viv in her confused wake.
Viv followed the patter of footsteps up the stairs, back to Lily’s bedroom, where the girl snatched a piece of paper from her bed and thrust it overhead. Viv took it. The erratic, scratched writing was not Lily’s immature style. And even if Lily read at a high level, these weren’t the words of a child. Brow knitting with concern, Viv asked, “Where did you get this?”
“The tooth fairy left it.” Lily stamped a foot.
Viv was gripped by the dread of her daughter’s every bang, wail, tumble and fall.
“Last night,” Lily clarified. “And it means I’ll get more money than I can fit in my hands.”
Viv reread the scrawl, to be sure the words were real: Smash out the rest to get handsomely rewarded.
It was a sick joke. Could Greg possibly have done this? There was no one else who could have … But why would he? She’d chosen gentle and reliable over exciting; Greg was a rock. Viv could barely process the thought.
Dinner occurred, somehow, on autopilot. Lily was washed and put to bed. Viv told her to forget this strange note found under her pillow, and made her promise not to try such things again. Lily was confused and borderline frightened, so Viv explained it was just Daddy being silly.
When Greg got home he immediately bristled at the anger Viv had been simmering all afternoon. He bit back, and in turn accused her. There was shouting.
This is our daughter! What’s wrong with you?
Greg gaslighting Viv, now. Both of them directing the same embittered argument at the other, until their energy was finally spent, and they fell into an awful, uncomfortable silence. A third option filled the house. Lily must have written it herself. Prodigiously and madly. Creatively, they had to hope.
“We’ll talk to her,” Viv decided, under her breath. “We’ll be very careful.”
They held each other. One weight lifted as another settled. But with a little extra monitoring, some words from a counsellor, it would be a blip in their child’s development, nothing more. It had to be that.

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For more Ordshaw shorts, you can check out yesterday’s story, The Banker on Lynn’s Books. The next story will be The Concierge, available on Bookshine & Readbows from October 24th.

And if your curiosity is not yet satisfied, here are a few links:

Find the author Phil Williams

The Violent Fae on Goodreads

The Violent Fae UK

The Violent Fae US

Under Ordshaw on Goodreads

Under Ordshaw UK

Under Ordshaw US

Blue Angel on Goodreads

Blue Angel UK

Blue Angel US

 

Reviews

Short Story Review: WEATHER (from Galactic North), by Alastair Reynolds

Alastair Reynold’s Revelation Space trilogy is one of the most intriguing (and challenging!) reads I ever encountered, but it happened several years ago so that time has blurred my memory of it considerably, and the complexity of the narrative context in which this space opera series is set made it difficult for me to retain more than a few of the myriad details of that multifaceted tapestry.  A re-read is something I might enjoy one of these days, and I think this collection of longer stories from that same universe might be the best way to re-introduce myself with the characters and the wide, sweeping background they are moving in.

Weather is a novella-sized tale exploring in more depth the hostility between the Conjoiners and the rest of humanity, even that part of humanity that has chosen to meld flesh and machine: the Ultras, another of the factions in which the human race has fractured itself, combine mechanical and organic parts, either to augment some capabilities or to replace lost limbs, but they leave the mind well alone, finding the Conjoiner way of life beyond repulsive.

This story takes place aboard the Petronel, a cargo ship being chased by pirates: after a long, nerve-wracking pursuit, the Petronel’s crew chooses to stand and fight and, quite surprisingly, they get the best of their hunters, who have run afoul of some wandering space debris.  As they board the pirate ship to salvage equipment for repairs, the crewmen find a Conjoiner girl who had clearly been a prisoner and, not without some difficulty, take her aboard the cargo at the insistence of Inigo, the shipmaster, and against the objections of Captain Van Ness, who is highly distrustful of Conjoiners.

The two men have enjoyed, up until now, a close relationship borne of trust and mutual respect, but Inigo’s insistence in trying to deal with the girl – named Weather as a way to simplify her complicated designation – as a human being instead of a dangerous monster, drives a wedge between shipmaster and captain, to the point that the fracture seems impossible to reconcile. Only the danger presented by the failing drive – a Conjoiner model – will convince the captain to trust Weather, up to a point, and let her try to repair it so that the Petronel can reach its destination in time.

The rift between Conjoiners and the rest of humanity is represented here in all its bitterness, the past misunderstandings and troubles so deeply rooted that even the passing of time seems unable to lessen them, and Inigo finds himself trying to walk the fine line between two opposing feelings, while the story reaches its inevitable, bittersweet conclusion.

 

My Rating:

Reviews

Short Story Review: A SPY IN EUROPA (from Galactic North), by Alastair Reynolds

Alastair Reynold’s Revelation Space trilogy is one of the most intriguing (and challenging!) reads I ever encountered, but it happened several years ago so that time has blurred my memory of it considerably, and the complexity of the narrative context in which this space opera series is set made it difficult for me to retain more than a few of the myriad details of that multifaceted tapestry.  A re-read is something I might enjoy one of these days, and I think this collection of longer stories from that same universe might be the best way to re-introduce myself with the characters and the wide, sweeping background they are moving in.

 

 

In the third story of this anthology the focus shifts from Clavain and the Conjoiners to follow another character entirely: Marius Vargovic is a highly skilled spy, enrolled for a mission on Europa, one of the major Jovian satellites, where he needs to contact a sleeper agent to retrieve an important substance that will prove pivotal in the struggle between the Demarchists and another faction for the control of political power.

The first part of the story follows more or less the usual patterns of spy lore: the agent arrives on site in disguise and mingles with the crowds of workers and tourists that move through Europa, then he meets his target while trying to look and sound inconspicuous, and finally he concludes his mission, heading for the retrieval point.  What comes as totally unexpected, as the story unfolds, comes from the descriptions of the place and the unforeseen turn of events that leads to the conclusion.

Europa looks like a fascinating and terrible place: not only the settlements around Jupiter are flourishing – mostly because the economy of Sol System’s inner planets is dwindling – but on Europa they are based on floating cities anchored to the moon’s frigid oceans thanks to a crucial technological discovery. The cities were built through the work of the Denizens, humans who had been genetically modified so they could survive in the cold depths of Europa’s seas, and have been used as little more than slaves ever since.

Vargovic’s task, on behalf of the Demarchists’ adversaries from Gilgamesh Isis, consists in taking possession of a material that will sabotage the cities, and to do so he needs to be surgically altered in a way that will allow him to live underwater for the critical part of his mission. But as such operations go, there are plots within plots involved and even the main operatives are unaware of every detail, so that Vargovic will have to face more than he could foresee, or had bargained for…

A Spy in Europa is a great change of pace and scope from its two predecessors, and at first I found myself a little disoriented, but as the story rolled forward, gaining momentum and upping the stakes, I was fascinated by its twists and turns, and highly surprised by the unforeseeable ending.

My Rating: