Reviews

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: 

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Short Story Review: RATES OF CHANGE, by James S.A. Corey

 

RATES OF CHANGE, by James S.A. Corey

(click on the title to read the story online)

 

When I saw the name of James S.A. Corey on the list of authors whose short stories are hosted on LightSpeed Magazine, I dived straight in: Corey (the pen name of writers Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) is the author of The Expanse, one of the best space opera series of recent times – both in books and on television – so I hoped that Rates of Change might be based on that universe. It wasn’t, but this did not diminish my appreciation of it.

The premise: in the future, it will be easy to swap one’s consciousness into another body with the same ease with which we change dresses – it’s not clear from the story how these bodies are obtained, whether they are cloned and stored waiting for… occupancy, or if they are bodies of people who have given them up, either voluntarily or not.  What matters here is that it’s something of a common practice, so common that the exchange is not limited to human bodies, but can be effected with animals as well: one of the story’s characters, Diana, retraces the steps that brought her son Stefan to splice himself into the body of a manta ray as a form of fun experiment with his friends. An accident caused Stefan’s brain to be explanted from the manta and placed in a sort of ICU gel bath while waiting for recovery, and Diana waits for the procedure to complete its cycle and to know whether her son’s consciousness is still intact or damaged beyond repair.

Both Diana and her husband are now living in bodies that are not their original ones: she had to switch once to avoid dying of a devastating cancer, and again when she did not feel at home in the new body; her husband changed his in an attempt at a fresh beginning when his wife’s depression made it apparent that she was feeling like an intruder in her changed body.  Diana’s very fragile balance, one that progressively estranged her from her husband, friends and acquaintances, is further endangered by what happened to Stefan and she is terrified by the long-range consequences on identity and sense of self that can come from this far-too-easy way of escaping the troubles of one’s corporeal form.  As she muses, “everything is a lie of health and permanence, of youth permanently extended”, and seems to negate the expected course of flesh’s decay, the natural rhythm of life.

It’s a fascinating philosophical question, one that offers no easy answer – as it should be – and ends on a consideration that, from my point of view, builds a slight tie with one of The Expanse’s themes, that of what makes us human even when our bodies deviate from the accepted norm, as it happens to Belters in micro-gravity: the authors remind us that “being human isn’t a physical quality like being heavy or having green eyes” and that we need to look beyond the skin-deep levels.

Thought-provoking, indeed.

 

My Rating: 

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Short Story Review: THE DEBT OF THE INNOCENT, by Rachel Swirsky

My search for interesting short stories (and a quick sample of authors who are new to me) continues, thanks to the archives of online magazines.  This week is the turn of:

THE DEBT OF THE INNOCENT, by Rachel Swirksy

(click on the link above to read the story)

This is one of the most chilling, most terrifying stories I read, and the horror does not come from monsters, alien invasions or deadly plagues, but from the cold calculation exerted on the right to live based on available resources that’s at the core or the story itself.

In the world depicted in Rachel Swirsky, one that does not seem very far in time from the one we’re living in, the energy crisis requires severe rationing of electricity: no more lights or computers kept on all day long, private cars a memory of the past, plane trips a luxury for the very rich.  This need to regulate energy expenditures extends to all sectors of society, hospitals included, and here is where the shock hits, because the author postulates that in any hospital neonatal care is restricted to a given number of incubators, and that occupancy is controlled by the ability of parents to pay for the energy outlay necessary to keep their babies alive.  It they can’t, the child is “displaced”, i.e. removed from the incubator and left to die so that their place can be taken by a baby whose parents’ solvency is more secure.

Even more terrifying than this premise is the acquiescence that becomes apparent from the characters’ reactions, as if that were an acceptable price to pay while the world re-builds its energy output and tries to go back to previous standards.  This compliance seems to come from the acknowledgment from the more fortunate that someone else will have to suffer the consequences, that there is “a luckless, down-at-heel class the majority can look down on and think ‘at least that isn’t me’. And as long as that balance remains, the deplorable policy of killing infants for watts will continue.”

Given recent news on the subject of health care, this story resonates both as a warning and an accusation, an admonition toward thinking about the long-range consequences of today’s decisions, and the impact they can have on the not-so-distant future.

Blunt, distressing and to the point – viciously so.

 

My Rating: 

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Short Story Review: LADY ANTHEIA’S GUIDE TO HORTICULTURAL WARFARE, by Seanan McGuire

 

LADY ANTHEIA’S GUIDE TO HORTICULTURAL WARFARE

(click on the link to read the story on Lightspeed Magazine)

 

Think about “The Day of the Triffids” blended with “The War of the Worlds” and “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” on a steampunk background: this is what this story made me think about, even though there is much, much more to it.  These concepts, handled by the deliciously evil writing skills of Seanan McGuire, have created the tale of an invasion that is also a commentary on human flaws, poking fun at our ingrained short-sightedness.

Told in the style of a 19th Century memoir from a lady of high breeding, it recounts the invasion and conquest of Earth by an alien race of… vegetables, and if the premise makes you smile, think again, because if the tone of the account is deceptively gracious and civilized, the reality it depicts comes across as efficiently brutal, and it chilled me to the bone.

The first wave of the invasion by what will be later termed “The Vegetable Empire” starts with the arrival of seeds all over the world: the only one who manages to thrive lands in 19th Century England in the garden of Sir Arthur Blackwood, the royal botanist – and promptly proceeds to eat Sir Arthur’s sister’s maid, taking on her appearance and memories.  Far from being appalled by what happened, the Blackwoods take the seedling into their circle, as a novelty and a subject of polite study, even bestowing on her the name of Lady Antheia, from the goddess of flowers. As Antheia later writes in her memoirs, “better had my first encounter with humanity been a man, and not a woman of low station with no family to mourn her. Better for who, I cannot say”.  The lack of a shocked reaction to Antheia’s method of interaction with humans is commentary enough on the period’s regard for household help and of their short-sightedness about the creature they have welcomed into their midst with little or no thought for her true, blood-thirsty nature: after all, Antheia comments, all they see is “the very flower of English womanhood, with my curves trained to the corset’s embrace and my skirts hanging full and demure down past my ankles”.  She looks like a woman, therefore she can offer no threat, can she?

When six years later the bulk of the invading army arrives, England and the rest of Earth are unprepared for the assault, not understanding how their perceived superiority in culture, breeding and arms (that include airships and ray guns and so forth) seems to melt in the face of a veritable shower of seeds that cover the ground and start sprouting invaders, with appalling results.  As a shocked Sir Arthur is forced to accompany Antheia to the Queen to negotiate a surrender, he struggles to wrap his mind around the incursion, and Antheia’s reply forces him to consider what the British Empire has done until that very moment, taking resources they wanted and needed: “that’s the first reason you did what you did, and that’s the first reason we do what we do”.

As always, Seanan McGuire’s writing skills make this story shine in a delightful way, not in spite but because of the main character’s personality: even if your are not a reader partial to shorter works, I would recommend reading this one for the amazing experience that it is.

 

My Rating: