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Review: THE PALACE JOB – Patrick Weekes

18318648When the Tough Traveling weekly meme over at Fantasy Review Barn touched the subject of heists, a good number of interesting books was listed by various posters: The Palace Job was the one that almost everyone mentioned, always in enthusiastic terms, so it’s hardly surprising that I became curious about it.  After a quick, compelling read I now understand the reason for such glowing reviews.

The Palace Job has been described as Ocean’s Eleven in a fantasy setting and it’s partly true, but the story itself is a very original one, blending classic fantasy elements with a great deal of humor and tongue-in-cheek fun poked at the genre – not in a derogatory way, but with the affection reserved to some tropes by someone who loves the medium but also loves turning it upside down for sheer fun.

Describing the main story would be far too complicated – too many twists and turns – and it would spoil the enjoyment of any reader, so I will stick to the basic facts: Loch used to be a soldier but is now serving a prison sentence on the underside of the floating city of Heaven’s Spire, cleaning the crystals that keep it suspended. It’s a dangerous task and the prisoners are not meant to survive it for long, but Loch and her former attendant Kail manage to escape, driven by Loch’s single-minded goal of retrieving a priceless manuscript that will insure them a more than comfortable future.  To this end they enlist the help of the most ragtag crew ever imagined: a shape-shifting unicorn and a virgin (of course!) bumbling teenager named Dairy; a failed mage with a penchant for illusions; a skilled lock-picker and her gravity-defying companion; a death priestess, who used to be a love priestess, and her talking warhammer.  The latter, going by the tongue-twisting name of Ghylspwr, is one of the best creations in the book, uttering the same three or four phrases in an old, incomprehensible and equally tongue-twisting language and yet imparting different shades of meaning to its words in a way that is both entertaining and fascinating.

The world itself is a very unusual one, a blend of fantasy settings with a few hints of a higher technological activity that nonetheless is dependent on magic and where different parties push their own agenda with back-stabbing gusto. There are golems and zombie-like creatures, elves and chimeric beings that are both fascinating and scary and above all there is the palpable amusement of the author in describing this setting without taking it – and himself – too seriously.

As I said, the plot is quite complicated and sometimes it seems to make no sense at all, but it hardly matters because the pace is so quick you don’t have time to stop and consider single events and/or their believability: action and wonderfully amusing verbal exchanges fuel this story, so the best way to enjoy it is to sit back and let it take you on its breakneck, rollercoaster ride. And to let it entertain you quite thoroughly in the process.

If the plot is somehow chaotic – and I’m not saying it in a negative way, because that’s part of the book’s charm – the characters are depicted in a wonderful way: even though each of them personifies a narrative profile, they are anything but cliché, and their interactions enhance the unique qualities that they possess.  Loch is a warrior, yes, but she’s also a planner and a shrewd individual who recognizes a person’s value with uncanny accuracy; she also knows how to motivate people and she builds a great, effective team out of what initially looks like a motley crew of individualistic misfits.  Her comrade-at-arms and friend Kail is her polar opposite: brash, bold and above all loud-mouthed, he carries the book’s running joke about provoking fights by insulting his opponent’s mother. Kail’s attitude was one of the highlights of the book, since his penchant for insult was developed with such unabashed flair that it never turned stale, becoming instead his trademark and the expected reaction in every dangerous situation.

The other characters are just as interesting and entertaining: how could one not be both amused and intrigued by a unicorn named Ululenia who’s also a shape-shifter and is visibly attracted by the group’s youngest member, a teenager who appears all elbows and awkwardness but is much more than meets the eye? And the others are just as interesting, each in his or her own way, even the bad guys: if some of them wear the guise of a mustache-twirling, evilly laughing opponent, they do so thanks to such a patina of authorial divertissment that it’s impossible not to enjoy them for what they are.

Bottom line? If you’re looking for an entertaining adventure and quality storytelling you need look no further than this book: you will not regret it.

My Rating: 8/10

Tough Traveling: EXTREME CLIMATES

tough-traveling

Tough Traveling is an interesting and thought-provoking meme started by Nathan @ Fantasy Review Barn: each week Nathan chooses a topic from The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, by Diana Wynn Jones, and challenges everyone to come up with a list of books featuring that trope.

Come join the fun!

This week we look at Extreme Climates

Perhaps the hansom prince lives in a castle surrounded by green countryside and sunny days.  The rest of the land is forced to deal with freezing cold, searing heat, and every other extreme climate mother nature can throw at you.

duneAs far as extreme climates go, there is no place more inhospitable than Arrakis, the desert world also known as Dune: there is virtually no free moisture on Arrakis, and water must be reclaimed with ingenious means – wind traps, precipitators and so on. The deep desert dwellers, the Fremen, survive in these harsh living conditions by wearing stillsuits, complex skin-tight suits that process bodily fluids, and even the moisture from breath, into drinkable water, collected in various pockets from which water is drawn through a drinking tube positioned near the neck. Water is the most precious commodity on Arrakis, to the point that the Fremen reclaim the fluids from the bodies of the deceased – the process is labelled “returning one’s water to the tribe” – and phenomena like the shedding of tears, a rare happening, are called “giving water to the dead” and observed with superstitious awe.  As if this were not enough, Arrakis is scoured by terrible winds, known to shear the flesh from the bones of an unprotected traveler caught in the open, and is home to huge worms – source of the precious, life-prolonging spice – that attack anything moving over the planet’s surface.

Going from one extreme to the other, J.G. Ballard’s The Drowned World paints a picture of a flooded Earth after the polar caps have melted: most of the world’s civilization has disappeared under tropical-like lagoons and the high temperatures have accelerated the growth and evolution of flora and fauna, that resemble more the kind that could have existed in prehistoric ages.  The changes in living conditions have drastically reduced human population and the numbers keep dwindling because of reduced fertility: it’s an apocalyptic scenario that can’t leave the reader indifferent….

In George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire, winters can last for years, or even decades: with no appropriate conditions to the growing of crops, survival depends on the stockpiles of food (and animal fodder) accumulated during the equally long summers. When those stockpiles are not enough – because of bad planning or due to an overlong winter – people can die of starvation, or decide to resort to horrible, unthinkable means of survival.  The motto of House Stark – guardians of the deep north and therefore accustomed to harsh living conditions – is “Winter is Coming”, a bleak but very realistic approach to the vagaries of Westeros’ climate and also a mindset geared toward awareness of the fragility of one’s condition and the need to be on a constant watch for the pitfalls of life in such an unforgiving land.  Even during the long summers, there is a place in the far north of Westeros, where winter and ice hold sway and a frozen barrier – the Wall – marks the boundary between the world of men and the one where the Wildlings live and the Others, zombie-like undead with ice-blue eyes, roam the wastes.

One of my most recent reads, from independent author M. Terry Green, is Iced – a view of a24734665 future Earth in the grip of an ice age: it’s a fascinating if chilling (no pun intended) look at how human society can adapt to dramatically changed living conditions.   A privileged few can live near volcanoes, from which they can draw heat and energy, and therefore cultivate crops and enjoy a normal existence, or as normal as allowed by the callous rulers of such enclaves. The majority though lives in the open wastes, on solar-powered boats that skim over the ice in constant motion: safety – even though quite relative – is in numbers and such boats tend to group in caravans for security, only a few bold souls daring to brave it alone in a wilderness that holds many dangers, from the weather-related ones, like freezing or the risk of falling into unseen crevasses, to the people-related ones, since bands of slavers scour the frozen pack in search of easy prey to sell.

And last but not least, there’s a short story from Ray Bradbury, The Long Rain, that caught my imagination when I first read it a few decades ago and still manages to bring a shiver of unease every time I think about it. The story follows the arduous trek of a group of astronauts who survived their ship’s crash on the surface of Venus: in Bradbury’s tale, the planet holds a breathable atmosphere and compatible gravity, but lies under a constant, heavy, relentless rain that’s depicted as “a rain to drown all rains and the memory of rains” and it’s a massive, intruding presence, almost possessing its own personality.   The four men are trying to reach a Sun Dome, one of the shelters erected by human colonists in the rain-plagued jungles that cover the planet: there they will find warmth, food and a safe harbor, but meanwhile they have to brave the rain, the treacherous ground and – more insidious – the mounting hopelessness that reaches its peak when they discover that the first Sun Dome they manage to contact has been attacked and destroyed by the planet’s inhabitants, who clearly resent the Terran invaders.  It’s indeed a dismal tale and one that offers little solace in the apparently encouraging ending: if you read it, you will never look at rain with the same eyes…

rain

Tough Traveling: HEISTS/CONS

tough-traveling

Tough Traveling is an interesting and thought-provoking meme started by Nathan @ Fantasy Review Barn: each week Nathan chooses a topic from The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, by Diana Wynn Jones, and challenges everyone to come up with a list of books featuring that trope.

Come join the fun!

This week as we look at HEISTS/CONS

Smash and grabs are not always the best way to illicitly acquire objects in fantasy land. Sometimes these things take planning, a loyal crew, and a little bit of luck. But a good crew can always get the job done.

Just a couple of days before the topic for this week’s meme was revealed, I felt like rewatching a couple of episodes from one of my favorite shows, Firefly.  For those of you who are not familiar with it, it’s an intriguing mix of science fiction and western themes, and as strange as it might sound, it works perfectly. The premise: in the far future, humanity has spread around the galaxy, colonizing many different planets. After a bloody civil war, these worlds have come under the rule of the Alliance – a bureaucratic, paternalistic form of government caring more for the wealthy central planets than for the outward-lying colonies that are often left to fend for themselves.  On this background moves the crew of Serenity, a Firefly-class spaceship manned by a band of rogues who refuse to bow to authority and live on the fringes carrying cargoes (both legal and illegal, but especially the latter) and passengers, while trying to elude the Alliance’s patrols.

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Serendipitously enough, the second episode of this short-lives series (thank you, oh myopic tv executives!) focuses on a heist – the title: The Train Job.  Captain Malcom Reynolds and his crew are contacted by crime lord Niska to steal a box from a train, and they are so desperate for income that they are ready to overlook Niska’s reputation for ruthlessness – enhanced by a horrific scene in which he shows our heroes what happens to people who don’t deliver on promises – and to ask no questions about the contents of said box.

What follows is one of the most fun and thrilling sequences in the show: while Reynolds and his XO Zoe travel on the train to offer inside backing, mercenary Jayne – Serenity’s one-man brawn department – is lowered inside the train on a flying cable, hooks the target crate and is reeled back inside the ship with the prize, while on the train all hell breaks loose due to the unforeseen presence of a contingent of Alliance soldiers on the premises.  Forced to remain onboard and stick to their assumed identities, the two find themselves at the train’s destination, the mining town of Paradiso (there’s some fine irony here…), where they discover the nature of the stolen cargo: the planet’s terraforming operations have created the breeding ground for a degenerative disease whose only cure was in the box targeted by Niska.

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Captain Reynolds might be walking on the fine diving line between law and crime, but his conscience will not allow him to profit from the suffering of a whole town, so he gives back the goods to the Paradiso settlers and decides to risk Niska’s retribution – which will come in time, but this is another story…. What matters here is the characterization at the basis of the episode and the whole series: the Serenity gang is made of anti-heroes by definition, and yet they do possess enough moral standards that help shape their decisions in the face of difficult choices.

While the train heist is an adventurous caper, liberally dotted with amusing scenes (including the rescue of Reynolds and Zoe by another member of the crew, pretending to be the owner of their indenture contracts) and it fits the classic Western tradition of the train robbery, there are several serious narrative threads that help expand on the future represented by the show and on the psychological makeup of the characters peopling it.

First we have the Alliance, the entity requiring unthinking loyalty from its subjects – some of which give it willingly enough, without considering the deeper ramifications, as shown in the initial bar scene in which the crew ends up in a brawl over Unification Day, the celebration of the Alliance’s victory over the Independents.  The contrast between the highly technological Alliance ships on patrol duty, and the dusty, miserable and hopeless landscape of colonies like Paradiso, shows how the unification of the settled worlds was imposed for purely selfish and political reasons, without a second thought for the well-being of the colonists themselves.

Then there are organizations like Niska’s, thriving on the power vacuum created by the Alliance’s lack of care, and even overlooked by the central authority as long as they don’t interfere with its goals.  In the middle lie the fringe planets, too small and poor to really matter on an economic scale, but still too important for the Alliance’s public face to be allowed any scrap of independence.  This is the background in which the Serenity’s crew moves, taking advantage of the central government’s indifference but at the same time following a sort of moral compass that makes it impossible for them to gain from the misfortunes of others.

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They might be outlaws, swindlers and smugglers, but when push comes to shove the crew demonstrates time and again that their hearts are in the right place, and that’s enough for the audience to root for them – even when they rob a train….

Screencaps from CAN’T TAKE THE SKY

Tough Traveling: DEAD GODS

tough-traveling

Tough Traveling is an interesting and thought-provoking meme started by Nathan @ Fantasy Review Barn: each week Nathan chooses a topic from The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, by Diana Wynn Jones, and challenges everyone to come up with a list of books featuring that trope.

Come join the fun!    

This week we look at DEAD GODS

Fantasyland had gods, right?  And now they are dead.  Dead Gods are not forgotten though, often they are still just influential to the land as they were when living.

There is nothing more terrifying, as far as god-like beings are concerned, than the pantheon envisioned by H.P. Lovecraft: his Old Ones, who ruled the Earth in ancient, forgotten times, and who at present seem to have succumbed to a death-like sleep, never cared for humanity, its destiny or the calamities visited upon mankind.  They are not gods in the strictest sense of the word, but rather extraterrestrial or extra-dimensional beings, often remote, distantly cruel and unfeeling, which makes them even more frightening than actively evil creatures.  Some humans chose to worship them, mistaking them for gods and creating weird and terrifying cults around them: these people wait – and pray – for the Old Ones’ release from their slumber and the advent of a new age of chaos.

cthulhu

The most (in)famous is CTHULHU, a god from a different dimension: a water-bound creature, roughly humanoid but also many-tentacled and greenish in color. Huge and powerful, he’s said to be in telepathic communication with his worshippers/priests even though he’s asleep in the depths of the subterranean city of R’yleth. His followers believe he will one day rise from his slumber and retake the rule of Earth, annihilating everything that’s good and wholesome: only a spell from the Necronomicon, the lost book of dark lore that Lovecraft often quotes, might have the power to stop him.

yog_sothoth

Another name frequently mentioned in Lovecraftian lore is that of YOG-SOTHOT, the Lurker in the Threshold: appearing like a collection of glowing spheres, he’s said to know and see all, even though he’s confined outside of our space-time continuum. This god’s infinite knowledge lends him a deep wisdom, but humans trying to learn his secrets, to the point they’re ready to sacrifice other people to Yog-Sothot to appease him, never end well. Hardly surprising…

nyarlathotep

NYARLATHOTEP goes by the moniker “The Crawling Chaos” and is known for his evil disposition and the fact that, unlike his brethren, he still walks the Earth wearing a human being’s appearance.  Deception and manipulation are his preferred tools, as is misdirection: contrary to the other gods, who are supremely indifferent to the fate of the human race, he has an active – if evil – interest in their affairs.

azathoth

Less known, but not less powerful or dangerous is AZATHOT: his other names are Demon Sultan or Blind Idiot God – this latter probably comes from his un-intentional creation of the universe at whose center he sits, looking like a churning mass of tentacles of enormous size.

With these creatures I needed images that would render justice to H.P. Lovecraft’s imagination, so I turned to Deviantart, a place of rich and amazing creativity.

Cthulhu is a creation of FANTASIO

Yog-Sothot is a creation of CHIVOHIT

Nyarlathotep is a creation of ERKANERTURK

Azathoth is a creation of XLEGENDARIUMX

My thanks to all of them for the beautiful art I found on their pages.

Tough Traveling: MOMS

tough-traveling

Tough Traveling is an interesting and thought-provoking meme started by Nathan @ Fantasy Review Barn: each week Nathan chooses a topic from The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, by Diana Wynn Jones, and challenges everyone to come up with a list of books featuring that trope.

Come join the fun!

This week we talk about MOMS

Everyone has a mother. Including people in fantasyland. Just in time to be slightly early for Mother’s Day.

This time I’m going to pick my examples from the screen – no books will be harmed in the process…

Star Trek gave several examples of mothers in the course of its distinguished career, and one of the very first is Amanda, Spock’s mother: she is a remarkable lady indeed, what with being able to live on a planet where her human emotions are anathema and having to accept the decades-long rift between her husband and her son. If it had been me, I would have bashed both of their hard Vulcan heads against each other and hammered some sense into them…

The original series offers us a very unusual kind of mother with the Horta, a silicon-based creature that’s mistaken for a dangerous monster only because she attacks the miners who are threatening her large cache of eggs, the future generation of her species. Dr. Beverly Crusher, from the Next Generation, is a mother both in the strictest sense of the word and in a more general meaning, being tasked with the crew’s health and well-being. On the other hand, Lwaxana Troi is the kind of parent everyone dreads: strong-willed, unashamedly meddlesome and bound to speak her mind at the drop of a hat – that is, when she is not picking yours through telepathy!

In the movie Aliens we see two formidable mothers square off against each other: on one side there’s Ellen Ripley, the heroine of the first movie, a woman who can battle her fears and go straight down to the monsters’ dens to retrieve the child she’s grown attached to.  Even though young Newt is not strictly her daughter, Ripley fights for her facing the Alien Queen: this monstrous creature defends her eggs with a mother’s courage, and even though the metamorphs have been depicted by the movies as dangerous, predatory critters that use people as incubators, it’s impossible not to understand the Queen’s scream of impotent rage when Ripley destroys her nest and torches everything both in self-defense and vengeance.

Motherhood can be a curse as well, as Xhalax Sun from Farscape learns at her own expense: having conceived her daughter Aeryn through an unsanctioned liaison, she has to decide between the life of her child or that of her lover, and therefore is forced to kill the latter to regain her superiors’ trust.  The long, hard way back has scarred her in body and mind, and when she meets her daughter again she’s so full of anger and self-loathing that all she wants is to exact some payback on her offspring.  When Aeryn Sun becomes a mother herself she goes on a totally different path, though: the fierceness learned as a warrior goes toward the protection of her child, both when it’s almost removed from her because of its precious DNA and when the boy is born, in the midst of a heated battle.  Fighting enemies even during the pain of labor (because, as she herself says, shooting makes her feel better) she proceeds to help herself and her friends out of a tight situation by wielding a gun with one hand and holding on to her baby with the other.  Give her a prize for Best Fighter Mom Ever!

When Kiera Cameron (Continuum), a 2077 City Protective Services officer, is sent back in time to what is our present, all she can think of is going back to her time, and her family: not so much, in my opinion, to a shifty and philandering husband, but to her young son, the only person she focuses on when the going gets though.  Highly trained and enhanced with biotech, Kiera is an interesting blend of professional efficiency and understandable weakness, especially where her son is concerned: two of her most prized possessions are a piece of the time device that sent her back and a toy soldier given to her by her son, to keep her safe, and I’ve always thought that the toy is the most important one to her.

And lastly I’m going out on a limb and postulating that Person of Interest can be labeled as sci-fi: if a supercomputer, a machine that spies on you every hour of every day and gives out social security numbers of potential victims or perpetrators is not science fiction… well, can I get away with it just this once?  That said, Detective Joss Carter is not just a good police officer, both strong and compassionate, but she’s also a great single mom.  Juggling a difficult, dangerous career and the hard tasks required by parenting is not at all simple, but Carter does it in an apparent effortless way, giving her teenage son a good role model. And apart from that, she’s just plain awesome…

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Tough Traveling – THE BIG CITY

tough-traveling

Tough Traveling is an interesting and thought-provoking meme started by Nathan @ Fantasy Review Barn: each week Nathan chooses a topic from The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, by Diana Wynn Jones, and challenges everyone to come up with a list of books featuring that trope.

Come join the fun!    

This week we look at THE BIG CITY

There has to be somewhere in Fantasyland where everyone comes together. All roads lead to Rome after all. A place where traders prosper, politicians scheme, and criminals thrive.

Alastair Reynold’s Chasm City is one of the most intriguing (and scary) places in SF literature: enclosed by a dome that protects it from the methane atmosphere of Yellowstone, it used to represent the highest peak of human civilization, a place of culture and scientific achievement totally based on nanotechnology.  But it all came to an end when the Melding Plague hit, a cyber virus that targeted nanotech-based constructs and destroyed Chasm City’s from the inside out, acting as a disease and attacking both buildings and computers as well as people with implants. The Plague tries to meld organic material and nanotech with unstoppable, horrifying results that have forced the city’s inhabitants to revert to technological levels low enough as to be unaffected by it: Chasm City has become a place where the only art form is that of survival and where the slowly morphing buildings can either be things of wonder or deadly traps. The lowest levels, named The Mulch, house the poor, the desperate and those fleeing from the law, while the wealthier inhabitants dwell in the highest reaches of the Mosquito Net, from which they descend only for the Game, a hunt for human prey devised by the city aristocracy, such as it is, against jaded boredom.

Blade Runner offers a vision of 2019 Los Angeles that has become iconic: our first view of it is that of a place of darkness and flames, searchlights and constant rain, giant billboards advertising products and a low-hanging smog cloud lit with infernal red from below.  The spectacle offered by ground level is not much better: the rain beats mercilessly on milling crowds that scurry in perpetual haste through the grimy streets where the sun never seems to shine, as if perpetual night had fallen on planet Earth. This city seems to be split in two halves: the street level, with its flowing humanity, shops selling and buying everything, seedy nightclubs and a fair share of criminal activity; and the high-rises, like the one housing the Tyrell Corporation, that seem to float above it all – the only places where a feeble sun seems to make its way through the clouds. It’s a dismal and dangerous place, indeed, but it’s a fascinating one as well, and it has inspired many similar cities in dystopian landscapes.

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And this list would not be complete without one of my very favorite places, a city floating in space: Babylon 5. A five miles long station, rotating on its axis to generate gravity, located in orbit around Epsilon III in the Epsilon Eridani System. Built as a neutral meeting place after the conclusion of the bloody conflict between Earth and the Minbari, it’s also a transit point toward several systems thanks to the nearby jumpgate, and a commerce hub for the many races living on it or simply passing through.  The station is divided in six sectors, from the forward section to the aft part where the power plant is located: Blue for docking facilities, command center and defense; Red for commercial areas; Green for diplomatic quarters; Brown for the industrial facilities; Grey for power and maintenance and Yellow for the fusion reactor. As we’re told in the intro for Season 1 of the show “It’s a dangerous place”, but it’s also one where the characters test themselves and their courage, their willingness to push boundaries and try and create something better. There is no better description for Babylon 5 than the one given at the beginning of each episode: “It’s a port of call, home away from home for diplomats, hustlers, entrepreneurs and wanderers. Humans and aliens wrapped in two million, five hundred thousand tons of spinning metal… all alone in the night.”   

If you never visited it… well, do so because after all…Sooner or later, everyone comes to Babylon 5.

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Tough Traveling: Awesome Displays of Magic

tough-traveling

Tough Traveling is an interesting and thought-provoking meme started by Nathan @ Fantasy Review Barn: each week Nathan chooses a topic from The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, by Diana Wynn Jones, and challenges everyone to come up with a list of books featuring that trope.

Come join the fun!

This week we look at AWESOME DISPLAYS OF MAGIC

Sometimes magic can be subtle. Who wants that? Big explosions or acts of creation, death and destruction or acts of awe inspiring wonder. If your world has magic then why not show it off?

One of the most amazing and unusual magical concepts I encountered until now belongs to Daniel Abraham’s LONG PRICE QUARTET: in the fantasy world he created, magic is literally embodied by the andats.  They are concepts, thoughts, ideas, that have been given substance and humanoid form by specially trained “poets” who undergo a rigorous training (rigorous and more often than not brutal) to be able to forge these creatures out of ideas – one might say out of thin air, really –  and bind them to their will.

The problem with andats is that like the concepts they represent they should not be held in thrall, and therefore these creatures are constantly trying to escape their bonds, to find a loophole in the poet’s lexicon – or a momentary distraction in the concentration that must be always maintained to keep the andat confined – that will allow them to terminate what amounts to slavery. A slavery that could go on forever, since a poet can hand over his andat to another poet.

Andats are not just resentful – they are dangerous: for example Seedless, that was created to separate precious cotton from the rest of the plant, is also able to effect miscarriages; or Stone-Made-Soft, that can make a miner’s work so much easier, but can cause the collapse of a tunnel and kill everyone. This is what a poet must always fight against in what amounts to a life-long struggle to control one’s own creation, and the failures are nothing short of catastrophic, as some of the stories related in the novel show with chilling certainty.

JAH42 on Deviant ArtIn Peter Brett’s DEMON CYCLE people are plagued by demons, called corelings, that rise out of the planet’s core at night leaving a trail of death and destruction behind them: each demon is tied to a specific element – like fire, air, rock or wood – and all of them seem to have no other purpose than to feast on humans and spread terror.  The only protection against the corelings are wards, special signs painted or carved on the dwellings where people shut themselves in at night, or drawn on the ground when someone is caught in the open at the fall of darkness.  If one is still alive at the return of morning light, they can still survive for another day…

One day though, a lone traveler discovers that painting wards on his skin gives him protection against the demons, and etching them on his weapons allows him to destroy them, so he tattoos those wards all over his skin, becoming the Painted Man (or the Warded Man) and he becomes something of a legend because he can travel at night without fear of the corelings and can bring the fight to them instead of huddling in fear behind four walls.

chari_san on Deviant Art

A word about the images: on Peter Brett’s site I chose two among many wonderful images inspired by his books, and since it’s only proper to give talented artists their dues, the image of the Warded man comes from JAH42 on Deviant Art and the weirdly compelling image of the demon comes from chari-san again on Deviant Art.  Once more I am amazed at the amount of talent I find on that site. And that’s another awesome display of magic, for me.

Tough Traveling: Unique Flora

Tough Traveling is an interesting and thought-provoking meme started by Nathan @ Fantasy Review Barn: each week Nathan chooses a topic from The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, by Diana Wynn Jones, and challenges everyone to come up with a list of books featuring that trope.

Come join the fun!

This week’s topic: UNIQUE FLORA

If you know of a plant that is either not on earth, or doesn’t act the same way in fantasyland as it does on earth, then you can consider it unique.

Triffids: From John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids novel, they are carnivorous plants able to move that take advantage of humanity after a weird meteor shower has left most of the population blind. Triffids can literally uproot themselves and walk on three stumpy “legs”, while the long, whiplike stem ends in a poisonous stinger,triffid the Triffid’s means of attacking hapless humans.

Inkvine: a creeping plant found in Frank Herbert’s Dune universe. Native to Giedi Prime, the home planet of House Harkonnen, it is used as a whip to subdue the slaves: the victims of an inkvine lash are marked by dark red “tattoos” that cause pain for years on end. Gurney Halleck, the master of arms of House Atreides and young Paul’s instructor, bears such a mark on his face from the time he was held captive in the Harkonnens’ slave pits.

G’Quan Eth: in the Babylon5 universe i’ts a plant indigenous to the Narn homeworld, and it’s used in Narn religious ceremonies where it’s burned as we would incense.  Since it’s difficult to grow and quite delicate, it requires costly measures to transport, but it’s also very prized by the Centauri who drop its seeds in alcohol to obtain a powerful narcotic.  For this reason, it’s been declared illegal on the Babylon 5 station, except when used for religious purposes.

treebeardEnts: it would be impossible to talk about special plants without mentioning these creatures, from JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. They are tree-like creatures able to move and talk, gifted with immense strength and said to be the most ancient race in Middle Earth. Their role is to be shepherd to the trees and protectors of the forests, and their most famous representative is Treebeard, who plays an important role in the War of the Ring.

According to GRR Martin’s A song of Ice and Fire, in the North of Westeros you can find Heart Trees: usually placed at the center of a Godswood (a secluded place of religious worship), they are white-barked, red leaved Weirwood trees with a face carved in the wood of the trunk. These trees’ sap is red as well, and flows from the cuts that represent the face’s eyes, so that it’s said the Heart Trees are weeping tears of blood.

And last but by no means least, a recent encounter: Groot.  He’s an alien, tree-like creature not unlike Tolkien’sGroot Treebeard, who made his first appearance in the Marvel comics and then received world-wide acclaim in the movie Guardians of the Galaxy.  He appears at first as nothing more than hired muscle, but soon shows his softer, gentler side and is able to convey a great deal of meaning with the only sentence he ever utters: “I am Groot”. It’s impossible not to feel a great kinship for this creature because, after all… we are all Groot!

Tough Traveling – ENFORCERS

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Tough Traveling is an interesting and thought-provoking meme started by Nathan @ Fantasy Review Barn: each week Nathan chooses a topic from The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, by Diana Wynn Jones, and challenges everyone to come up with a list of books featuring that trope.

Come join the fun!

This week’s topic: Enforcers

Some people are made to give orders; others are made to make sure they are carried out. Be it through muscle or guile there are just some people you don’t want to hear are looking for you.

My examples for this week’s topic come from two TV shows I love, Farscape and Babylon5.

premiere_142In Farscape, the epitome of the enforcer is embodied by the Peacekeepers: originally conceived as a peacekeeping force (hence the name) by an alien race that raised them from primitive conditions and trained them to be protectors of the weak and defenders of the oppressed, they lost sight of this original purpose once their masters disappeared and turned into a brutal military organization.  Peacekeepers don’t belong to a single world, since they live and die on huge space carriers where they are trained to be soldiers everyone fears, an army of ruthless, cold-blooded fighters who know no compassion or humanity.

Much of this attitude comes from the way they are raised: the concept of family is unknown – children are born to “replenish the ranks” and reared in communal crèches, unless they are forcibly “harvested” at a young age from planetary settlements; pregnancies are assigned as a duty to be performed, and any emotional attachment is frowned upon at best and punished as a crime in the worst cases. Peacekeepers are taught that their only loyalty goes to the unit they belong to, coached to subsume their own individuality into that of the group: any deviation from this norm, any evidence of softer feelings is labeled as “irreversible contamination” and punished with death.  Given such a grim environment it’s not surprising that Peacekeeper are feared and hated and that the name alone can inspire both dread and loathing.

In Babylon5 we first encounter the Psi Cops: they are the enforcing arm of the Psi Corps and also the telepaths with the higher level of psi ability, therefore able to move past other telepaths’ mental barriers and, if necessary, control them.  In an organization born from the fear of non-telepaths (or mundanes) for those individuals exhibiting such extraordinary talent, the Psi Cops represent the ultimate barrier between the world and gifted people: the uniform and the badge telepaths must wear, the gloves that preventbabylon007 accidental reading through occasional contact, are the outward signs of that fear. Telepaths recognized as such must join the Corps or undergo chemical suppression of their talent, a choice that in the long run leads to depression and suicidal tendencies – that’s why the Psi Cops’ main task is to find telepaths who are hiding their talents to avoid being enrolled into the Corps against their will, or to bring rogue telepaths back into the Corps’ cold bosom. Feared by their own kind, they stop at nothing to impose such merciless rules on others but are not exempt from a worrisome question: who controls the controllers?

The Night Watch is an organization born out of the corrupt Earth government’s idea of control carried NW_wikiout through clever manipulation of the general feeling of unrest present on Earth and its outposts. Their goal is to put an end to any activity that’s deemed “subversive” and that includes any open criticism of the Earth Government: to this goal they start recruiting people employed in law enforcement or security, promising them some extra pay and then progressively deepening the scope of their intervention to the point where the Night Watch’s duty becomes that of spying on the general population.  The great freedom enjoyed by the Watch’s militant in enforced through Earth’s Ministry of Peace (a name with intentional Orwellian overtones) and its ultimate purpose is to do away with due process and civil liberties. A scenario that’s beyond chilling…

Tough Traveling: Beloved Mounts

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Tough Traveling is an interesting and thought-provoking meme started by Nathan @ Fantasy Review Barn: each week Nathan chooses a topic from The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, by Diana Wynn Jones, and challenges everyone to come up with a list of books featuring that trope.

Come join the fun!

 

This week’s topic: Beloved Mounts

 

Of course Tolkien had to be my first source of inspiration, so here we go with SHADOWFAX,Shadowfax chief of the Mearas or Princes of Horses. His coat is silver-gray in daylight and next to invisible in darkness, and legend says he can understand human speech and run as fast as the wind.  Given, albeit grudgingly, to Gandalf by King Theoden, Shadowfax was wild and untamed and suffered no rider, but the Grey Wizard succeeded in befriending him and making him a trusted comrade in the many battles fought during the War of the Ring.  At the end of the Age, Shadowfax went with Gandalf across the water to the Undying Lands.

temeraireA more fantasy-oriented steed is TEMERAIRE, the dragon from Naomi Novik’s alternate history series. Hatched aboard a British ship that had captured its egg from a French vessel, Temeraire bonded with the ship’s captain William Laurence and they were both recruited by His Majesty’s Aerial Corps to battle against the Bonapartist army.  Intelligent, well-spoken and fluent in English, French and Mandarin – this last unsurprisingly, since Temeraire’s rare breed of Celestials hails from China – Temeraire is a mix of childish innocence, deep curiosity and fierce loyalty, that quickly gains him Laurence’s affection and devotion.

And from the memories of my far-off youth here comes a THOAT: Edgar Rice Burroughs Thoat-2described these animals in his John Carter novels – they are eight-legged (on Mars many creatures have more than four) with a large, flat tail and an equally large mouth that practically cuts their muzzle in two.  Slate-colored, with feet grading to yellow and white bellies, they are able to live off the moss growing on the surface of Mars: the smaller variety is as big an Earth horse, while the bigger one can reach 2,5 meters at the shoulder. Impressive…