Time for another bite-sized romance sci-fi adventure by Jessie Mihalik! Like a lot of folks, I first came to these Rogue Queen books after reading Polaris Rising in her Consortium Rebellion series. Of course, once I discovered these novellas which were previously released in serialized format on the author’s website were getting officially published with audiobook releases as well, I just had to pounce.
The Queen’s Advantage is the follow-up to The Queen’s Gambit, which continues the story of our protagonist Queen Samara of the Rogue Coalition. Following her daring rescue of Emperor Valentin Kos from the clutches of the Quint Confederacy, Samara has agreed to help him root out the traitors in his court. It will be a dangerous job given how many enemies the emperor has, and it doesn’t help that those same mysterious traitors aren’t big fans of Samara either, considering how her past stunts had cost them a whole lot of money.
Sure enough, soon after their arrival there is a violent attack, prompting Samara to move up her schedule and show her hand early. Troublingly, Valentin appears to be losing control of his security forces, and his adversaries will no doubt make use of the confusion to sow more discontent and chaos, if they haven’t already infiltrated the higher levels of the administration. This is a problem for Samara, who has promised to repay her debts to Valentin by guarding him, not to mention there is the matter of their burgeoning relationship. The two of them have become quite close, and Samara is the type of woman who always keeps her promises and fights to protect what’s hers.
Compared to The Queen’s Gambit, this sequel might have had just a tad less action, but the story makes up for it by delving deeper into the world building. The Queen’s Advantage shines a light on the intricate web of politics that connects the galaxy, expanding on the power dynamics that exist between the factions in conflict. In particular, we get to see the inner workings of the Kos Empire, which aren’t as hunky-dory as we think—for one thing, Valentin doesn’t have limitless authority, and the truth is he faces quite a lot of opposition to his rule and there are quite a few people at court who hate his guts. In fact, what we learn here is that the state of the Empire is actually quite a mess. And walking into the middle of this pit of snakes is Samara, a queen in name only, who is as welcome as a wet dog at a fancy dinner.
With two books each of the Consortium Rebellion and Rogue Queen series under my belt now, I can also confidently say that Samara is a typical Mihalik heroine—and I mean that in the best way possible. Her protagonists are all smart, tough, and independent women who can take care of themselves. Case in point, Samara can more than hold her own against the scheming politicos and other bureaucrats who look down their nose at her. She’s also fiercely protective of Valentin, who is probably my favorite of Mihalik’s male love interests so far. He’s funny, sweet, and surprisingly down-to-earth for an emperor. While I’m still not sure how realistic this feels, I’m liking the chemistry between him and Samara, his idealism being a good counterpoint to the rougher parts of her personality.
Also, another thing I like is that we’re not rushing into the romance. That said, neither would I call it a slow-burn; quite simply, there are a few matters in our characters’ relationship that still need to be ironed out, and we’re just letting things take their natural course—the way it should be. Again, you won’t find anything too deep here, but The Queen’s Advantage nevertheless serves its purpose as an entertaining diversion if you’re looking for something to lighten up a few hours of your afternoon. I would recommend this series, especially if you’re enjoying what you’re seeing in Jessie Mihalik’s other novels.
Audiobook Comments: Rachel Dulude reprises her role as narrator, and once more she brings a passion and enthusiasm to the novel and is a perfect voice for Samara. One thing to note, however, is that I had to speed up playback for this audiobook a bit more than usual because of the slow speech rate, but this wasn’t a major issue and overall my enjoyment was unaffected....more
I confess, I haven’t always had much luck with novellas, even when it comes to those by favorite authors, but I ended up really enjoying this one. For me, it was simply the right mix of humor and horror. Take the witty, smart-alecky narrative style of The Martian and combine it creepy, dread-inducing atmosphere of Alien, and you’d probably end up with something like Walking to Aldebaran. One wouldn’t think that would work so well, but it did.
The book takes us inside the head of our protagonist, astronaut Gary Rendell. And us, we are Toto. Don’t ask. All you have to know is that our man Gary has been on his own for a long time, long enough for him to start going a little stir-crazy, hoping to find another living soul to call friend. They wouldn’t even need to human. At this point, Gary is beyond caring about such trivialities, for you see, he’s trapped on a giant alien artefact that was found drifting at the edge of our solar system, following a disaster that killed the rest of his crewmates. Now he’s lost, frightened and alone, wandering aimlessly through the cold dark tunnels of the megalith.
Gary had thought he was lucky when he was chosen to be part of the exploration team, after a space probe sent back images from the Oort Cloud showing a strange alien rock which was nicknamed “The Frog God” because of its uncanny resemblance to the amphibious animal. But now that he’s in this mess, he can’t help but look back on the past and examine the chain of events which has led him here. And maybe it’s the shadows playing tricks with his eyes, or the fact he’s losing his mind from being so lonely and terrified, but over the course of all this walking, he’s seen and experienced some pretty weird shit. Not to mention, perhaps he’s not so alone in these Crypts after all, though whatever horrible thing is out there, he’s not so sure he wants to meet it.
Hands down, my favorite thing about Walking to Aldebaran was the voice of protagonist. There’s no question that Gary Rendell’s humorous accounting of his journey added much enjoyment to the book, but there’s also another side to it. You know the saying “you gotta laugh or you’ll cry” or ever hear of people cracking jokes as a fear response? There’s definitely an underlying element of this at play in the narrative, and rather than breaking me out of the immersion, the humor actually worked to further emphasize the sheer horror of the situation in which Gary has found himself.
I also liked how the overall story unfolded. For such a short book, there’s quite a lot to unpack. From Gary’s experience in the Crypts to the events that led up to the discovery of the Frog God and how the exploration team came to be on the alien artefact, everything is covered here in a way that balances pacing and the amount of detail being doled out. Adrian Tchaikovsky takes care not to overwhelm the reader with information, nor does he want to push us too far over the edge when it comes to the terror and intensity of the atmosphere. Each time before the plot can veer too far in one direction, he reels things back to build interest in another area, so that we get to cover a lot of ground while moving at a fast clip. Flashback scenes and memories were also done well in a way that doesn’t draw too much attention away from what’s happening in the here and now.
Also, the ending—which I will not go into, because no spoilers here—was one hell of a dark twist, and I never thought I’d be saying this but it might have single-handedly solidified Walking to Aldebaran as one of my favorites by the author, right behind Children of Time. Granted, so far I’ve only read a relatively small sample of his massive bibliography, but this one felt pretty special to me, which is all the more impressive considering how picky I am when it comes to novellas.
Bottom line, I found Walking to Aldebaran to equal parts hilarious and terrifying, and ultimately very rewarding. Of course, I can see it not being to everyone’s tastes, given the narrative tone of the protagonist, but if you don’t mind a bit of lightness with your horror and an interesting approach to the unreliable narrator, I would give this a try. I also don’t recommend novellas too often, but once in a while an exception will come along, and this one I believe would be an excellent introduction to Adrian Tchaikovsky because it’s a wonderful showcase of his talents as a storyteller, if you’ve ever been curious about his work.
Audiobook Comments: It seems I’ve been having all kinds of luck with author-narrated audiobooks lately, because this was Adrian Tchaikovsky gave a superb performance on this one. I also think it worked especially well given the character of Gary Rendell. Tchaikovsky, being his creator, knew exactly how to deliver his protagonist’s narration, right down to the little details like tone and cadence, making this one an awesome listen all around....more
This is probably going to be one of my shorter reviews, because as much as I wanted to love The Monster of Elendhaven, unfortunately that just didn’t happen. That said, neither did I dislike it. Once more, as it so often tends to happen with me and novellas, I’m left with a sense of coldness and indecision when it comes to my feelings on this book.
Things started well enough. In the beginning, readers are introduced to the grimy city of Elendhaven, a foul setting of darkness and evil founded upon a bloody battlefield corrupted by magic and violence. In other words, the perfect place for a monster to make its home.
That monster’s name is Johann. He can’t remember where he came from, but he knows he’s unnatural. Natural men can be hurt and die, but he can’t. He also discovers he has a talent and taste for killing. And thanks to his immortality, nothing can stop him as he stalks the streets of Elendhaven, preying on his victims and growing in power.
But then he meets Florian Leickenbloom. Florian is a sorcerer, and Johann realizes that by working. together they can unleash even more chaos and devastation upon the unsuspecting masses of the city.
Any way you look at it, The Monster of Elendhaven is one dark and gloomy book. And I think for me, that was part of the problem. Don’t get me wrong; I certainly don’t mind at all when my stories are grim and dreary, but still, I need to know why I care. The issue with Elendhaven is that author Jennifer Giesbrecht has so successfully painted such a wretched and irredeemable place, that I really couldn’t have given two hoots if the surrounding seas had opened up and swallowed the city and everything within it whole.
Then there were the characters. Neither Johann or Florian had any personality to speak of, and I believe when your book stars such despicable protagonists, they’d damned well better have a spark of charisma, however small, for me to connect with them. Unfortunately, while each had their own unique quirks and fascinating modes of speech and behavior, that simply made them eccentric, not real.
To be fair though, Florian had a compelling backstory, which proved to be one of the stronger aspects of this tale. The other interesting element was the romance, if you can even call it that. I love unconventional takes on relationships, and this one was most definitely on the strange and twisted side. That said—and I think this becoming a common refrain—when it comes to romance, I prefer that it not become the dominating factor of a non-romance genre book, and I felt that in some respects it received too much focus here, to the point of distraction.
And speaking of common refrains, here’s another one: I wish this novella had been just a tad longer. I think it would have addressed many of the issues, including building the setting and the characters up to be more sympathetic and interesting. On the whole, I also think the author made a few faulty judgment calls, being too concerned with being edgy when her focus should have bene on developing more pertinent aspects of the story.
In sum, The Monster of Elendhaven will probably work well for many, but it didn’t for me. I did enjoy the concept of the novella, but sadly I just wasn’t a fan of the execution, and all in all, the story and characters lacked the hook I look for in a book....more
Your Favorite Band Cannot Save You ended up being as quirky and wild as its title suggests, and quite honestly, it’s rare for a book to be this weird but for me to still like it so much. While you could technically classify it as science fiction with a light sprinkling of cosmic horror, at the end of the day, I believe this strange and slightly freaky novella is simply too unique to be pigeonholed into any one category.
I also have a feeling it would work best if the reader knows as little about the plot going in, but I will say that music—especially the passion and critique for it—is the central theme. The story is told from the perspective of a small-time music blogger who one day stumbles across a mysterious track on Bandcamp uploaded by a new artist he’s never heard of before. From the moment the powerful song hit his ears, however, he knew that Beautiful Remorse would be the next big thing. Fronted by its enigmatic singer, Airee MacPherson, the band promises to release a new song every day for the next ten days, much to the delight of its legions of new fans who listened to the first track and couldn’t get enough. There was just something about the song that was so potently addictive and irresistible, almost transcendent.
Before long, our music blogger gives in to curiosity and reaches out to Airee MacPherson, managing to score an interview and a chance to go on tour with Beautiful Remorse. At first, it’s like a dream come true—that is, until he shows up at their first concert and realizes something is seriously wrong with the whole picture. To say that Airee is nothing like he expected is an understatement, but by the time her true intentions are revealed, it is too late for our hapless protagonist to walk away.
Let me just start by saying that the insanity of this book is a feature, and not a bug. As such, it probably won’t be for everyone, but I genuinely enjoyed every moment of the story and it’s one you should check out if you’re looking for something a little different and offbeat. Clocking in at about 120 pages, this novella was also a quick read and well worth the hour or so it took me to read it. Considering how poorly I usually fare when it comes short fiction, or weird books like this for that matter, it surprised me how riveted I was from start to finish.
I’m sure one thing that helped was the main character’s voice. He’s a music nerd, and as such, his attitude was at once endearing and slightly annoying in the way only someone who is a nerd of anything can be. The author certainly captured the nature of fandom and obsession very well, right down to the zealous online communities to the clamor to be first to discover new things and coin new terms. The writing style was so distinctive and full of wit and personality that I could not help but be sucked in right away.
And yes, this was funny. I laughed a lot, though not always for the expected reasons. There were times where we got legitimate moments of chuckle-worthy humor, while at others, I found myself busting a gut at just the sheer absurdity of it all. In any case, you can’t accuse this book of being boring. Bizarre, yes, and even violently dark in places, but there is definitely no room for any downtime or lulls here. Readers are thrown into the thick of it from the get-go, and this fervent energy continues all the way through with no way to predict how anything will play out.
I wish I could say more, but Your Favorite Band Cannot Save You is really one of those books you have to experience for yourself. Needless to say, I had a lot of fun with this one, and if you enjoy fast-paced eccentric stories and don’t mind a slight horror bent with lots of WTFery thrown in, I hope that you will too....more
With Lies Sleeping ending with the final showdown between Peter Grant and his archnemesis the Faceless Man, bringing a seven-book story arc to a close, fans are wondering where the Rivers of London series will be going from here. Rumor is that Peter will be back, but in the meantime, we get to whet our appetites with a spinoff novella called The October Man.
Providing readers with some much-needed breathing space following the intensity of all that Faceless Man action, this tale features a classic down-to-earth mystery taking place in the German city of Trier and introduces a new protagonist. Tobias Winter is an investigator for the Abteilung KDA, Germany’s own version of a supernatural crime fighting force similar to the Folly, and he is also one of the country’s few officially sanctioned magical practitioners. He arrives to the Mosel wine region after a suspicious death is reported in the area, teaming up with local police officer Vanessa Sommer to figure out what happened to the victim whose body was found covered in a grey fungus known as noble rot—an important infestation used in the process of making particularly fine and concentrated sweet wine.
Magic may have killed the poor man, but it is good old-fashioned detective work leads our characters to a nearby vineyard owned by a woman named Jacky Stracker, whose family has had a long and interesting history of interacting with the surrounding genius loci. Their investigation also uncovers a connection between the victim and a peculiar drinking club whose members are a group of middle-aged friends holding weekly get-togethers to enjoy good wine and experience the culture and arts of Trier. With a history that stretches back to the time of Ancient Rome, Germany’s oldest city offers no shortage of suspects, both mundane and magical, and it is up to Winter and Sommer to crack the case before the killer can strike again.
The October Man is a very well-constructed detective story, simple enough to be told in the span of a novella (granted, at more than two hundred pages, this one’s on the longer side) while still containing plenty of complexity to hold the reader’s attention. In addition, its pacing allows for plenty of fast-paced action and police work, but moments of downtime also provide opportunities to get to know our characters better. Despite being in a new setting and following a new protagonist, I was delighted to feel all the familiar attributes and the fine balance of Ben Aaronovitch’s writing style.
And of course, the best part about this story was being able to see magic in another part of the world. Expanding the Rivers of London universe, Aaronovitch shows how other places have their own protective spirits and genius loci. He also explores the way magical crimes are investigated and handled in Germany, and it was interesting to contrast attitudes and procedures between Abteilung KDA and the Folly due to political and cultural differences. Trier itself is a fascinating setting, boasting rich architectural history and a lively social and art scene, all of which the author highlights with the same kind of passion and attention to detail he gives to the Peter Grant novels. I also loved how the story revolved around the region’s wine industry and incorporated the history and process of wine making into many threads of the plot.
Perhaps my only criticism is Tobias Winter’s voice, which does not distinguish itself enough from Peter Grant’s. They sound so similar that I found myself frequently forgetting that we were supposed to be following a completely different protagonist, and only the occasional German brought me back. Although Tobias comes across as slightly more serious than Peter, to me it just seems there should be a greater distinction between their two personalities and narrative patterns, given their disparate backgrounds. That said, this can also be viewed as a positive, because if you enjoy the tone and style of the main series, then you should feel right at home with this one too.
All in all, Ben Aaronovitch has delivered another fun and captivating Rivers of London mystery, The October Man being a novella and featuring a different setting and characters notwithstanding. I loved getting to meet Tobias and Vanessa, and it would thrill me greatly to see this corner of the series expanded with more stories in the future....more
Miranda in Milan isn’t so much a retelling than a sequel, reimagining of the events after The Tempest by William Shakespeare, picking up the tale at the play’s end where everyone including the magician Prospero and his daughter Miranda are getting ready to head back to Naples. But instead, they end up in Milan. Miranda and Ferdinand are to be married in celebration of their triumphant return, and Prospero himself is to reclaim his dukedom. Rather than the joy she expected, however, Miranda is met with fear and distrust at her destination, shunned and shut away in her chambers at the castle. Whispers of Miranda’s resemblance to her dead mother Beatrice follow her everywhere, and she is forced to wear a veil to hide her face whenever she ventures outside.
Isolated and friendless, abandoned by her father who has gone on to do bigger things and with no word when her wedding will happen, Miranda begins to lose hope. That is until she meets her new maid Dorothea. As a Moor, Dorothea is just as ostracized as Miranda, and she doesn’t seem bothered by the rumors about the duke’s daughter. The two of them start to grow close, with the friendship swiftly blossoming to become something even more. Meanwhile, it appears Prospero has not been entirely truthful in his proclamations to abandon his magic. As everything begins to fall under the threat of his dark schemes, Miranda and Dorothea must work together to uncover the truth and save Milan.
In the original play The Tempest, Prospero is the main character, portrayed as an unfortunate exile. Miranda is but a mere side note, her actions and behavior completely dictated by her father. In Miranda in Milan, however, it is she who gets to feature as the story’s protagonist, while Prospero is cast as its villain. Admittedly, I might have been more taken with author Katharine Duckett’s direction of these roles had I not read 2017’s Miranda and Caliban by Jacqueline Carey. While there are many differences between the two books, at their heart, both shine the spotlight on Prospero’s kind and compassionate daughter, both reimagine her in a coming-of-age romance, and both depict her father as a domineering and menacing figure in her life. There are just enough parallels to invoke comparisons between how the characters, relationships and themes are handled, and in almost every way—e.g. character development, romance, world-building, storytelling, etc.—I felt Miranda in Milan fell short.
Part of the issue could be due to its length. At just a sliver over 200 pages, this novella had a lot to convey and yet not enough time to do it. I hate to say it, but this is why I’m typically wary of short fiction because more often than not, I come away from short works wishing they had been more, and this was one of those cases. To wit, there’s a lot going on in this book: first, the Shakespearean elements, and contextual details of the original play that had to included; second, there were the relationships—and that means not only of the romance between Miranda and Dorothea, but also the complexities and nuances in the dynamics between Miranda and Prospero, Miranda and Ferdinand, etc.; and third was the overall plot itself, which sought to incorporate a bit of mystery related to Miranda’s mother along with the intrigue and conspiracy of Prospero’s dastardly plans.
With all this in play, there was barely enough time to properly explore the world’s secrets or its magic, or go any deeper into characters’ backgrounds, personalities, and motivations. As a result of this, I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, I want to praise this book for its ambitions and its integration of so many interesting and rich concepts, but on the other, I can’t say it managed to develop any of them very well. This ineffectual build-up ultimately led to very little pay payoff and satisfaction, sad to say. For example, Miranda and Dorothea’s romance—which I considered to be the most notable aspect of this tale and thus expected quite a lot from—ended up being nice and sweet but also rather superficial and uninspired. As well, the ending which I thought contained several unique twists and revelations was nonetheless anticlimactic simply because the story’s foundations were not developed enough to make me feel much of anything for the characters or their conflicts. Miranda in Milan being Duckett’s debut, I also wasn’t surprised to run into pacing problems. Understandably, some things cannot be rushed, but I did feel the early sections of this book moved too slowly and were bogged down by unnecessary diversions.
All in all, I can’t say I loved this book, but that being said, I didn’t dislike it either. In the end, I think I just wanted more—more depth, more clarity, more detail. More feeling. It’s possible that tighter pacing and more pages could have provided all that, but as it is, Miranda in Milan gets an average rating from me, though I will keep watching to see what Katharine Duckett writes next....more
Exit Strategy closes out the Murderbot Diaries quartet of novellas, and while it’s a bit on the tame side compared to all that came before, I couldn’t have asked for a better ending to tie everything together. For those who have been on this crazy ride since the beginning, you will also be delighted to know this book takes us back to the beginning, to the event and people who started it all.
At the end of the last book, Murderbot had just made a significant breakthrough in its investigation of the shadowy corporation GrayCris and has decided the time has finally come to seek out Dr. Mensah, the lead researcher we first met in All Systems Red. But there’s only one problem: it appears Mensah has been kidnapped in a preemptive move by GrayCris to prevent a lawsuit from being brought against them. Murderbot now has no choice but to take it upon itself to rescue Mensah, but first it must take care of another predicament. Word is out that a rogue SecUnit is on the loose, and the authorities are out in force looking for Murderbot, threatening to end its mission before it even begins.
After making its way to the space station where Dr. Mensah is believed to be held, it’s a heartfelt reunion as Murderbot is reconnected with the other scientists from the original exploration team. But none of it is going to compare to the moment when our protagonist finally comes face to face again with the person who had always known Murderbot’s true nature, treating it as an individual and a friend. Needless to say, the idea is a bombshell for an A.I. who has always had difficulty coming to grips with its emotions. In one of the most compassionate and revealing moments of this entire series, the famously snarky and misanthropic Murderbot must consider how these feelings will affect its perceptions of humans, as well as what this might mean for the future.
Like all the Murderbot Diaries novellas that have come before, this final one really packed a punch. But while action and intrigue have thus far been major elements in the previous volumes, perhaps it is no surprise where Exit Strategy hit the hardest was in the emotional department. I felt it was an appropriate and natural next step following the intensity and energy of Rogue Protocol, and the more reflective tone of this book allowed for the attention to shine on everything going on in Murderbot’s mind. We’ve seen how each installment has built upon the previous one, forming a larger narrative while always increasing the stakes. Having recognized this trend, I expected a lot from Exit Strategy and in the end I was not disappointed. We have now witnessed the nearly complete transformation of Murderbot. It has gone to great lengths to augment itself to look and act human, and the final step was learning how to feel human.
For those of a mind that a person alone with no community, friends, or family can ever truly grasp the full human experience, you will probably appreciate the themes in this series. Murderbot began as an artificial intelligence freed from its programming. Hilariously though, before Dr. Mensah’s team came along, it was content to simply use its newfound freedom to enjoy the limitless offerings of TV shows available from the human entertainment networks. From the beginning, that part of Murderbot’s personality set the stage for the type of humor and charm you would find throughout this series, but it goes deeper than that. I’d really like to think that the soaps was what set our protagonist on its path to empathize with and relate to humans, ultimately discovering the importance of meaningful relationships and value of friends and other people who will have your back—no matter what.
All told, the Murderbot Diaries series has been an absolute delight. All four novellas have been quick and easy reads, but nevertheless, they’ll be hard to forget. I’m very excited for the upcoming full-length novel, because like many others, I have not had enough of Murderbot yet, not even close. I’ll be looking forward to see where Martha Wells will take the character next....more
Murderbot’s back again in Rogue Protocol, the third installment in Martha Wells’ series of sci-fi novellas about a rogue A.I. who has broken free of its SecUnit programming, but all it wants is to be left alone to enjoy its thousands of hours of entertainment vids in peace. Well, that is until recently, when Murderbot discovered that GrayCris, the corporation behind the attacks that almost killed the scientists on the expedition that started this whole mess, is up to no good again. Whatever they’re doing might be worth investigating, so before long, Murderbot once more finds itself on a transport ship traveling to its destination with another group of humans that needs protecting.
Fortunately, due to some recent modifications, Murderbot is able to pass itself off as an augmented human, presenting itself to the other passengers as Rin, a security expert. But a hitch in this plan occurs unexpectedly, when Murderbot realizes that one of the group is an android named Miki who is accompanying its human on this mission as a—colleague? friend? pet? Murderbot can’t quite make sense of the relationship, but Miki’s presence is something of a concern since the other bot would know there is something more to “Rin” than meets the eye. Eventually though, every team member—whether human or A.I.—becomes an invaluable asset as their ship arrives at the planet where a defunct GrayCris terraforming facility awaits, not quite willing yet to spill all its secrets.
Maybe it was the fast-paced plot, or the fact this was probably the most suspenseful and action-oriented installment so far, but Rogue Protocol felt like a very short read. I blew through it in a little more than an hour, which should tell you at least how much I enjoyed it. At this point though, I would expect nothing less from a Murderbot novella; they’ve become my go-to books for reliable entertainment.
But as I’ve noted before in my reviews of the previous volumes, the Murderbot Diaries is also a surprisingly introspective and conceptual approach to our understanding of human nature, specifically asking the question “What does it mean to be human?” Granted, most of it is seen through Murderbot’s eyes, whose unique attitude and perspective on the matter certainly injects a lot of humor into it. Still anti-social and as snarky as ever, our protagonist is nevertheless evolving into something different—definitely not a mere program anymore, but at the same time, not quite human yet either. It’s hard to put a description on this “in-between” state of being, but it’s definitely integral to what makes Murderbot such a fantastic and interesting character, and the refreshing originality of its narrative voice is also why these books are so fun to read.
As ever, Murderbot is trying to figure things out. And it’s not just what GrayCris is up to either. Our protagonist is also trying to work out what makes humans tick. If it wants to be able to pass as one of them (strictly for practical reasons, of course), it knows it has to learn. It also wants to understand what it is gradually becoming. After all, these pesky things known as human emotions are baffling and worrisome. So far, we’ve seen Murderbot picking up these social cues as it learns from observing humans and watching its beloved cheesy soap operas. For the last two books, however, Wells has also introduced a third way for Murderbot to discover more about its programming: by comparing itself to other bots. In Artificial Condition, we met ART, who gave Murderbot a whole new perspective on A.I. to consider. Likewise, the presence of Miki here is designed to make Murderbot consider its role in the world, and I have to say, the utter confusion the other bot causes our protagonist was enough to make me burst out laughing. Poor Murderbot. It was in no way prepared for Miki.
Still, how this volume ended was a bit predictable, which admittedly stole away some of the emotional impact. That said, Rogue Protocol is another solid sequel in what might be one of the best sci-fi series to come out in recent years. Don’t let the size of these books fool you; Murderbot Diaries packs a powerful punch in every 150-ish page volume, and this is coming from someone who isn’t even all that into novellas and short fiction. I loved this, and I’m looking forward to more....more
I don’t know what it is about the Witchlands series, but both novels that are out thus far have received middling ratings from me when I reviewed them, and yet I just keep coming back for more! Still, if I had to guess, I would credit the simply sublime world Susan Dennard has created. Say what you will about her storytelling and characters, but the incredible imagination and effort that she has put into the world-building here is second to none. I probably would have continued the series anyway, so when I found out about this prequel novella which serves “as a set up to Bloodwitch as well as an expansion to the world”, I thought it would make sense to read it and learn more about the magic while waiting for the next novel installment.
Sightwitch takes place approximately a year before the main series starts, following a Sightwitch Sister named Ryber Fortiza (whom we first met aboard Prince Merik’s ship, if you’ve read Truthwitch). Told through a series of journal entries and other pieces of documents, her story will take us on an adventure into the mountain which houses the convent of her order, a close-knit sisterhood that worships the goddess Sirmaya.
They say Sightwitches are made, not born. Young acolytes serving at the temple are eventually called to receive the gift of Sirmaya, becoming blessed with her Sight. For years, Ryber’s mentors have told her that she is special, that one day she will be called under the mountain and become one of the greatest Sightwitches to have ever lived. But day after day, as others are called forth and not her, her hope begins to fade. As someone who always follows the rules, Ryber can’t seem to figure out what’s wrong or what more she could be doing to get her goddess to summon her.
Then one day, everything changes. Sirmaya still does not call upon Ryber, but she does call upon everyone else. Ryber’s threadsister Tanzi was the first to go beneath the mountain and not return, and after that, more are taken each day until Ryber is the only one left. Something is happening to the goddess, and it is now up to Ryber to seek the truth.
Despite being a minor character in the main series, Ryber has always been a fascinating figure. We also know relatively little about her, so a novella telling her story was a very welcome addition. Not only does it reveal a lot about our protagonist’s life before Truthwitch, it also tells the origin story of how she became a Sightwitch Sister. The presentation of the novel was a nice touch as well, with the journal entries giving insight into Ryber’s unique voice. The in-depth exploration into her character gave me a better understanding of her motivations, and I liked how I got to see the way she viewed herself and how others viewed her.
The other major highlight of Sightwitch is, of course, the scene detailing the first meeting between Ryber and Kullen, the threadbrother of Prince Merik. The young man had somehow found himself deep underground, lost and bedraggled with no memory of how he got there. Terrified of this dirty and scary looking stranger who seemed to have appeared out of nowhere, Ryber is reluctant to have anything to do with Kullen at first, but eventually she realizes they must work together in order to survive the many obstacles beneath the Sightsister mountain. Gradually, a friendship develops between them, and considering the limitations of the format and length of this novella, I felt this portrayal was done exceptionally well.
I also loved the magic in this. The world of The Witchlands is filled with many types of witches—individuals who possess the power to manipulate the forces and elements around them. These powers, called “witcheries”, can manifest in different ways, with some being rather straightforward (like an Airwitch’s ability to control wind and air currents) and others being quite complex and abstract (such as a Threadwitch’s power to allow him or her to read people’s emotions and see the literal ties that bind relationships). I’ve always felt that Sightwitch magic falls in the latter camp of being one of the more unique and complicated witcheries. The world-building is as exquisite as ever as we explore the mysteries of the Sight in Ryber’s story, learning the ways of the Sightwitch convent and the way Sisters are called forth to receive Sirmaya’s gift. With each chapter, our understanding of the Witchlands universe grows a little more.
What surprised me most about Sightwitch was how much I actually enjoyed it. Typically, I find most novellas to be too short for much story or character development, but in the case of Sightwitch, it worked well. There’s enough to feel a connection with the characters even if you are newcomer to this world, and the story was also relatively straightforward, so the more streamlined the better. I think overall this has given me a new enthusiasm for the series, and I look forward to seeing how everything will play out once we get back to the main novels.
Audiobook Comments: The Sightwitch audiobook is narrated by a full cast—a rare treat, especially for a relatively short piece like this. The voice actors and actresses were chosen well; everyone performed marvelously with varied accents, tones, feelings, and inflections. The only downside is that the print edition contains some art and illustrations so you’ll be missing out on those, but otherwise I would highly recommend the audio....more
All hail Murderbot! So glad to be back for another round of action and adventure with our favorite SecUnit. I am unequivocally loving these novellas, and it still amazes me how much punch Martha Wells has managed to pack into each slim volume. Artificial Condition is the sequel to All Systems Red, so keep in mind this review may contain spoilers for the first book if you haven’t started the series yet (plus, if you’re still not on the Murderbot Diaries train, you’re really missing out).
Following Murderbot’s leave-taking from its former team of human allies, our protagonist now has a precarious kind of freedom to decide where to take the next step. But with so much of its past shrouded in mystery, Murderbot is resolved to fill in the missing details in its memory bank first, especially given its violent history. There are so many questions still left to answer, such as how Murderbot went rogue in the first place, an event that resulted in a killing spree and the deaths of many humans. Was it Murderbot who hacked and disabled its own governor module, causing the rampage? Or was someone else responsible for those directives? To find out, Murderbot must first uncover where the massacre took place, and to do so it will need to pass itself off as human in order to travel freely.
Just its luck though, Murderbot gets stuck on a transport whose AI sees right through its cover story and disguise. But instead of alerting the authorities, the AI transport, called ART, decides to help Murderbot learn the truth. Together, the two of them narrow their destination down to a mining planet. ART proceeds to help Murderbot with augments and alterations so that it can pose as a human bodyguard and join a research team down to the planet’s facilities, where Murderbot will hopefully find the data it needs.
I always like to say that it’s the characters that bring a book to life and make me feel a connection, and this is especially true of the Murderbot Diaries. Murderbot is a part-organic and part-synthetic android, but its personality, as it were, is also decidedly unlike that of any robot I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading about. Murderbot is still constrained by a lot of its original programming, so its voice could not really be considered human by any stretch of the imagination. And yet, it still displays a lot human-like qualities I find endearing, not least of all its love for the campy entertainment feeds. Considering how Murderbot doesn’t even like humans all that much, it’s amusing how fascinated it is by the lives of the ones in its favorite soap operas. Even better is how Murderbot picks up so much of what it knows about human social cues from the fictional characters in shows with names like Worldhoppers and Rose and Fall of Sanctuary Moon—hiliarious!
Artificial Condition also stands out because of the very special relationship between Murderbot and ART. While the humans come into play later in the story, I loved how for the most part this book was all about the two AI. Is this the beginning of a beautiful new friendship? I sure hope so, even if the two of them didn’t exactly get off on the right foot. It was interesting to see how their programming differed, one being a SecUnit with the other being a powerful, albeit often lonely, onboard computer on a long-haul transport ship. Somewhat to my surprise, it was ART who was savvier to the social ways of humans, teaching Murderbot how to blend in (and also pointing out everything Murderbot has been doing wrong, much to our protagonist’s chagrin). This introduction to ART opens up the world a little bit, as we’ve been led to believe thus far that Murderbot is something of an anomaly among AI. With ART, however, we now know there may be other bots floating around that do not always perform in accordance to their programming, which begs the question: what other possibilities are out there?
I, for one, am looking forward to finding out. With each book in The Murderbot Diaries, Martha Wells continues to expand and explore the personality of her protagonist, putting Murderbot in new situations where it must learn and adapt. Despite being somewhat prickly and a little awkward, Murderbot is charming in its own way, and I just love reading these adventures through the eyes of such a compelling character. I just can’t wait to find out more as Murderbot carries on its investigation to dig up its past and find out more about its identity....more
Last year, I had the pleasure of reading horror writer extraordinaire Ania Ahlborn for the very first time. I was glad I picked up The Devil Crept In, a novel about a boy who goes missing in the woods amidst a town with a terrible secret. It was legitimately one of only a handful of books to ever keep me up at night, and I vowed that I would read more Ahlborn the first chance I got.
That chance came with Apart in the Dark, an omnibus featuring a pair of the author’s horror novellas which were previously only available in digital format. Now, I’m not typically big on novellas, but I gladly made an exception in this case.
The Pretty Ones
The first story in this collection, The Pretty Ones, takes place in New York City during the sweltering summer of 1977—the year in which the Son of Sam conducted his infamous killing spree. Our protagonist is Nell Sullivan, an early twenty-something young woman employed at a call center for a major corporation. Quiet, awkward, and extremely self-conscious, Nell doesn’t feel like she fits in with the rest of the girls at work, who all seem to have perfect hair, perfect clothes, perfect lives. Silently, she may seethe at their bullying and cruel jabs, imagining torturing and killing them in the worst of ways, but the truth is, Nell desperately wants to be popular. She also can’t afford to lose her job, so when her supervisor tells her to try to open up and be more social, Nell takes the advice to heart.
However, her brother Barrett, who doesn’t speak and is completely dependent on Nell to support his aspiring writing career, thinks she’s wasting her time trying to make new friends. He believes the two of them can only depend on each other, having shared a traumatic childhood growing up with an abusive mother.
More than this I don’t want to say, because wow, there were a ton of cool twists and surprises packed in this novella which only clocks in at about 140 pages. As someone who both fascinated and frustrated me, Nell was a compelling character to follow. She’s strange, timid, unwilling to stick up for herself, and admittedly, at times her thoughts and actions could also come across as unbelievably cringey. That said, her personality traits are the result of her upbringing, and the descriptions of horrible things she and her brother went through were just heartbreaking. When you consider her past, it becomes easier to understand the disturbing thoughts that go through Nell’s head, and why she is the way she is.
Truth be told though, I don’t know if I would classify this story as true Horror, as it is not frightening or creepy in the traditional sense. And while there is an element of suspense, Ahlborn doesn’t exactly utilize it in an overly dramatic or exaggerated way. Instead, the story’s climax just kind of sneaks up on you, so that when the final revelation hits, you won’t even really see it coming. That’s the only explanation I could come up with for not figuring out the ending until late in the story, as I’m usually much quicker when it comes to these things.
I Call Upon Thee
Before I continue, first let me preface this next part of my review with a little confession: I hate dolls. Ever since I was a little girl walking in on my parents watching Child’s Play, I have been afraid of them. To this day, I cannot look upon the frozen smile and glassy eyes of a doll without getting the heebie-jeebies. So as you can imagine, this next story creeped me the hell out.
I Call Upon Thee follows Maggie Olsen, a college student who was raised in Savannah, Georgia in a big gorgeous house with her two older sisters. But something happened in that house when our protagonist was a child—something dark and unnatural—that made her decide to leave the moment she graduated high school and never look back. When she was nine years old, Maggie’s middle sister Brynn took her to the nearby cemetery to see where the town’s dead children were buried, and sitting on one of the ancient forgotten graves was a box containing a porcelain doll. Feeling sad for the little girl in that grave, Maggie made a promise to be friends, visiting the cemetery daily until the summer of 2005 when Maggie brought the doll home in order to protect it from the onslaught of Hurricane Katrina.
But that wasn’t the only thing she brought home. On the day she turned twelve, Maggie used her birthday money to buy a Ouija board, which she tried playing with her best friend during a sleepover party. Life for the Olsens was never the same after that. Tragedies struck one after another, until Maggie left for college and thought the past was finally behind her, but now a frantic phone call in the middle of the night has forced her back to Savannah to confront her old home and the darkness still living inside.
If the previous novella wasn’t scary enough for me, then this one definitely made up for it in spades. Reading it sent chills up my spine. Containing all the ingredients of a classic horror tale, I Call Upon Thee plays upon our childhood fears of the dark and things that lurk under our beds or in our closets. Of the strange sounds waking you up in the dead of night. Of the quick blurry shadows that you catch just out of the corner of your eye.
Also, since this was a longer novella, there were more opportunities for character and story development. I liked how the narrative slowly unraveled, gradually revealing all the secrets and terrible things that happened in Maggie’s past. And just when I thought things couldn’t get better, I reached the end and saw the Author’s Note. Here’s a tip: if you ever read this, make sure not to skip Ahlborn’s closing comments. Reading them only made the unease I felt over this story grow, and made me appreciate it even more.
In closing, I’d just like to say how much I enjoyed Apart in the Dark. While the two novellas within may share some themes, on the whole they are quite different, each offering a distinct horror experience. Both, however, are solidly written and utterly engrossing to read. If you’re curious about the work of Ania Ahlborn, this would be an excellent place to start....more
These Oberon side stories have been given a series name now, called Oberon’s Meaty Mysteries (which is just so perfect) so hopefully that will mean a lot more of these hilarious novellas to come! Spinning off from Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid Chronicles, this book once again follows Atticus O’Sullivan’s faithful Irish wolfhound as he and his owner embark (pun intended) upon another mini-adventure to solve a mystery and bring the dastardly culprits to justice.
While knowing the basics behind the main Iron Druid series will help you get the most out of this story, thankfully like its predecessor The Purloined Poodle, this one can be read perfectly fine as a standalone if you just feel like jumping in. This time, our doggie protagonist and his human are off to Portland. But first, Oberon would like everyone to know: Squirrels are pure evil and must be stopped at all costs—especially when they are so bold as to hitch a ride on the train.
After giving chase to a particularly impudent squirrel through the crowded Portland station and banishing it into a stairwell, Oberon and his fellow canine companions Orlaith and Starbuck inadvertently lead Atticus to stumble upon the scene of a crime. A man with an uncanny resemblance to him has been murdered, shot through the skull with a plastic bolt fired from a crossbow. Stunned and disturbed at how much the victim looks like him, Atticus is driven to do some investigating for himself, and with few leads to work with, the lead detective on the case reluctantly agrees to let the druid and his hounds help her out.
I’ve only read a few books in the Iron Druid Chronicles, but even with my limited experience with the series, it was impossible not to fall in love with Oberon. For readers who simply can’t get enough of this goofy pooch, you must read these novellas, which are completely told from his point of view, and as an added bonus, this book also features a lot more of his fellow wolfhound Orlaith as well as Starbuck the Boston terrier. Once again Hearne does a fantastic job putting his readers inside his canine characters’ heads, and all the doggy quips never failed to crack me up. In particular, Starbuck reminds me very much of my own dog with his adorable outbursts of “Yes food!” or “No squirrel!” which sounds just about right.
Compared to the first book though, this one was perhaps a tad less funny, with many of the jokes and pop culture references feeling a bit forced. The mystery plot was also a bit slapdash in places, with explanations that don’t make a lot sense or are simply glossed over to push the story along. Still, I can’t say I minded too much, considering these novellas are meant to be breezy little excursions on the side and nothing too complex. That said, in a head-to-head, I would hand the edge to The Purloined Poodle in a heartbeat, hence my slightly lower rating to this follow-up, but in the end you really can’t go wrong with either of these novellas which are both solidly fun and entertaining.
Bottom line? I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Dog lovers, Iron Druid enthusiasts, and Kevin Hearne fans—this one’s for you. I had a great time with The Squirrel on the Train, which proved to be another lighthearted diversion featuring one of Urban Fantasy’s most popular and beloved pets. With luck, I hope to see even more books starring Oberon in the future....more
An innocent summer project undertaken by a trio of college students quickly turns into a nightmare in The Twilight Pariah, a novella which drew me in with the promise of history and horror. But while the premise itself held plenty of potential, the end result did not pack quite the punch I expected, due to the slightly underwhelming execution of the story.
Maggie, Russell, and Henry are childhood friends who have all returned to their hometown for college vacation. Having recently switched her major to Archaeology, Maggie is suddenly struck with the inspiration to dig up the old outhouse pit behind the notorious Prewitt Mansion, a property that has been abandoned for decades. With a little bit of cajoling, the two others are recruited to help her out on this amateur excavation, and together the three of them head out into the night armed with a bunch of lanterns, shovels, and buckets.
While the first couple of their dig sessions proved uneventful, one night our protagonist Henry discovers something terrifying at the bottom of the pit: an infant’s skeleton, with bony horns on its skull and the evidence of a tail. Disturbed by the find, the three of them decide to keep the baby’s remains a secret, conducting their own research into who the child might be and the reasons behind its particular deformities. At around the same time, however, there have been a string of fatal attacks reported, with the victims’ bodies looking like they have been mutilated by a wild animal. None of the three friends believe this could be a coincidence; without realizing it, they may have awakened something evil that would stop at nothing to retrieve what it lost.
Have you ever read a book that has great ideas, but no soul? This was how I felt for the most part while reading The Twilight Pariah. The writing may have played a big part in it, since I found Jeffrey Ford’s style to be a little too restricting and stilted. As a result, very few scenes of terror came across as impactful as they could have been, with even the important bits like the climax imparting virtually no suspense or emotion. I don’t know if there were supposed to be any twists or surprises in the plot, because none of them really came off feeling that way at all.
Being a novella, the disadvantage of its shorter length could also be felt when it came to character development. Henry and his friends Maggie and Russell were all lightly sketched, with very rudimentary personalities. There was also too much telling and not showing, so subsequently their relationships to each other and their loved ones (Henry with his father, Russell with Luther, etc.) felt very flat. I wish the story would have spent more time developing those deeper connections, rather than squandering precious paragraphs describing the three friends sitting around the pool smoking pot and drinking themselves into a stupor.
And yet, for all my complaints, I didn’t entirely dislike the book. I think it accomplished what it set out to do, which is to provide a quick and simple tale of creepy entertainment. It could have been a lot more though, which is where most of my disappointment stems from. While the supernatural angle was fun and the eventual explanations for what happened at the Prewitt Mansion were interesting, the horror elements—which, as I said, were some of the key reasons I was originally drawn to this book—were rather muted and didn’t do it for me. All told, The Twilight Pariah was a perfectly good treat to indulge in for an afternoon of escape, but it didn’t make much of a lasting impression....more
Bujold returns to her World of the Five Gods with another novella featuring Penric, a sorcerer of the Bastards’s Order, and Desdemona, the ancient and powerful demon riding in his head. We once again jump ahead in time, accompanying an older and mellower Penric as he travels across the sea to the nation of Cedonia where he will attempt to carry out a secret mission on behalf of his employer, the Duke of Adria.
But despite traveling under a false name, Penric is immediately arrested upon his arrival and thrown into a dungeon to await execution. Soon, he discovers that something similar had also happened to General Arisaydia, the contact he was supposed to meet. Although the general was eventually released, the punishment he endured during his imprisonment left him blinded and forever incapacitated, unable to perform his military duties. Somehow, the truth of Penric’s purpose in Cedonia has gotten out, and someone is clearly going to great lengths to prevent him and Arisaydia from ever meeting.
Not to be deterred, the ever resourceful Penric manages to evade death in the dungeons with the help of Desdemona. He then proceeds to track down Arisaydia, whom he finds being cared for Nykis, the general’s widowed sister. Developing a relationship with the latter while attempting to heal the former, Penric becomes entangled in web of danger which culminates in a dramatic and breathless escape from Cedonia.
For those who require a quick refresher on the series thus far, Penric is a former nobleman who became a sorcerer and temple divine following his accidental posession by the demon known as Desdemona. Although Desdemona and her kind are called “demons” in this world, these spirits aren’t considered typically or inherently evil, and most end up being more mischievous and impish than anything. Even a demon as old and powerful as Desdemona is known to partake regularly in good-natured teasing and playful banter, leading to no shortage of entertainment when it comes to the dialogue between her and Penric.
In fact, I’m sure that readers who enjoyed the friendship and lively interplay between the characters in the first two novellas will find even more to delight in with Penric’s Mission. Now thirty years old, our titular protagonist has had a lot more time to get to know Desdemona, and the genuine affection they have for each other is apparent in all their interactions. After all, when you let your literal demons out to talk to your potential romantic interest, that’s what you call trust! Pen and Desdemona’s conversations also reveal a lot more about the world-building, furthering our knowledge of the lore and mythology behind the World of the Five Gods. In addition, our characters’ journey to Cedonia opens up another little corner of the map, introducing us to a new place and culture.
Compared to its predecessors Penric’s Demon and Penric and the Shaman, which were more subdued, this third installment reads more like an action-adventure, complete with a touch of spycraft and a high-risk rescue mission. I daresay fans of the author’s more action-oriented and fast-paced military sci-fi sagas are going to feel right at home. There’s even a thread of romance—not prominent, but still well developed—between Pen and Nykis. Given how some of my favorite fictional couples have been created by Bujold (Cazaril and Betriz, Dag and Fawn), I’m understandably excited to see where she’ll take their relationship. The characters are always the highlight of her stories, so I’m especially intrigued at the possibilities that new POVs like Arisaydia and Nykis can bring to the table.
All in all, Penric’s Mission is another fantastic addition to the Penric and Desdemona sequence. A must read for fans of Bujold and followers of the series....more
It’s always somewhat challenging to review a shorter work like this. Over the past year I’ve become quite a fan of Adrian Tchaikovsky which has led me to sample as many of his books as I found interesting, hence Ironclads. But considering the length constraints of a novella, developing a strong storyline and deep realistic characters can be tricky.
The book is set in a near-future version of our world in which the government of the United Kingdom has all but dissolved along with many other countries, bought up piecemeal by the powerful American corporate conglomerates. A new elite class has emerged, called the “Scions”—essentially the children of the super-rich who can afford the protection and security of mecha-like suits that make them practically invincible on a battlefield, which is pretty handy indeed with war raging all across the planet.
For the ordinary grunts like Sergeant Ted Regan, however, the fighting is as dangerous, brutal and ugly as it’s ever been. Now his squad has been called in for a special mission to investigate and track down a Scion who went missing somewhere in Scandinavia where the Americans are at war with the Nordic alliance. Together with his teammates plus a corporate liaison cast out by her bosses, Regan must trek across enemy lines to recover a lost rich kid whose supposedly impenetrable armor should have made him invulnerable.
As always, the author is a wizard with his world-building, constructing a strong framework in which to set this tale. The future in Ironclads is bleak, but also strangely alluring, in an imposing, terrifying kind of way. Yes, the inegalitarian conditions are horrific, but Tchaikovksy has also packed this dystopian world with a lot of impressive and awe-inspiring elements. In a word, his ideas are just so…well, cool. After all, it’s hard not to get excited over anything related to battle suits and giant robots and superhumans and the like.
Other aspects of the book are a bit light though, I’m afraid. Again, I understand the challenges of a novella when it comes to developing a solid plotline and full-bodied characters, but I didn’t feel like these areas were prioritized. Ironclads is heavy on the action, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But I also know that Tchaikovsky is capable of a lot more. Sure, the book is interesting enough and the action sequences help keep the momentum going, but at the end of the day, it’s nothing to write home about. Strip away the fascinating premise and the aforementioned cool world-building elements, and what you’re left with is a storyline that’s actually rather thin. And it’s the same with the characters. There’s not really enough time to explore them in any kind of keep or meaning way, so the narrative is forced to fall back on some predictable patterns, like old soldiering tropes and other clichés.
Don’t get me wrong, Ironclads wasn’t a bad book by any means, but let’s just say I knew what I would be getting when I went into this, and the quality of the experience ended up being in line with my expectations. There simply wasn’t enough time for the story and characters to develop into something more, and the heavy emphasis on action probably got in the way of that too. It’s also why I’m typically not big on novellas, though the excellent world-building by Adrian Tchaikovsky was definitely a highlight of this one. Fans will find Ironclads perfectly enjoyable, even if it’s not his most memorable work....more
Normally I tend to skip the novellas and short stories that authors are always tacking onto or in between books of their series, but believe me when I say all bets are off when it comes to Rivers of London. The instant I learned about The Furthest Station, I just knew I had to read it. Chronologically taking place between Foxglove Summer and The Hanging Tree, the story is probably meant to be a fun little side episode to help us Peter Grant addicts curb our appetites while waiting for the next book, but ultimately I found it so entertaining that I’d readily recommend it to newcomers and old fans alike.
As a city with a long history, London is also home to a lot of ghosts. Many of them even ride the Underground each day along with—and unbeknownst to—the thousands of living Londoners on their work commute, but rarely do these spectral passengers make any trouble. So when the police start receiving a number of reports about frightening, aggressive, and disturbing ghost sightings on the Metropolitan Line, the situation is worrying enough to get PC Peter Grant and his supervisor Inspector Nightingale on the job. After enlisting the help of Peter’s aspiring magician cousin Abigail and Jaget Kumar of the British Transport Police, the four of them take to the trains in order to try and get to the bottom of this ghostly mystery.
The problem though, is that none of their witnesses can recall much of their haunted encounters. Interviews with the ghosts themselves are also out of the question, after it is found that their incorporeal bodies quickly dissolved after the sightings—a rather unusual sign. Gradually though, Peter and the others are able to collect enough clues to piece together an explanation for the ghosts’ strange behavior…and the prognosis is not good. A very real person’s life maybe in imminent danger, and it is up to the Folly as Britain’s only paranormal investigative unit to save a kidnapping victim before it is too late.
While it might help to be familiar with the series before starting The Furthest Station, it is absolutely not required and this novella can be enjoyed just fine as a standalone. In fact, the story actually features little to no mention of the overarching plotlines in the main series, so don’t expect to see anything about Lesley or the Faceless Man, and even Beverley Brook and the other aspects of the genius loci play only a small role here. In essence, this book reads like a compressed version of a normal Peter Grant adventure, without all the side dramas and extra flavors that usually flesh out an urban fantasy series. For those of us who want to see Peter and Nightingale get back to some good old fashioned sleuthing, this compact mystery tale contains an irresistible case with all the ingredients to keep us on the edge of our seats.
Likewise, The Furthest Station is also perfect for someone who just wants to dip their toes into the world before deciding to take the plunge into the novels. Everything I love about the main series this novella has in spades, including the sharp witticism, rich history and world-building, and of course the diverse and charming characters. With the cast being reduced for this shorter installment, we don’t get to meet as many of the usual contacts to whom Peter goes for advice or consulting, but we do get a couple of new faces as well as larger roles for characters who deserve more attention. Abigail for one is a treasure and I certainly hope her position as the Folly’s summer intern isn’t going to be a one-off because I would love to see her play a bigger part of this series (and given the discussion between Peter and Nightingale in the final chapter, something tells me there’s a good chance I’ll get my wish). Speaking of which, Nightingale fans are also in for a treat. I’ve always bemoaned the fact we hardly ever get to see Peter’s governor in action, even though Aaronovitch is always teasing his immense magical power. Well, this time I’m pleased to say Nightingale gets involved with a lot of the police work, and also gives us many reasons to be in awe of his wizarding skills.
All in all, this was a wonderful book and a nice break from the usual routine. I typically shy away from novellas that supplement a series because I often find I don’t gain too much from them, but The Furthest Station is actually one that I’m glad I got to read. This is the way to do it, in my opinion, by offering a complete standalone story that is both substantial and fun, as well as featuring elements that appeal to those who love the series while also being newcomer-friendly at the same time. If you haven’t had the pleasure of meeting PC Grant yet, this is a fantastic opportunity to do so. And if you’re a fan of the Rivers of London books, I think you’ll be pleased as well, and if nothing else, this novella should help make the wait for the next novel just a tad little easier....more
I’ll be the first to admit I’m not the biggest fan of short fiction, but I genuinely enjoy reading Brandon Sanderson novellas. Honestly, I have no idea how the guy does it. Whether his books are 1000 pages or 100, they’re always fun to read, not to mention creative as hell. As you’d expect, this was definitely the case with Snapshot as well.
Davis and Chaz are investigative partners with an interesting job, working out of a town called New Clipperton where law enforcement has access to a very special facility that helps them solve crimes. The police there have access to a technology that allows them to create a “Snapshot”, a perfect reconstruction of a day recently in the past right down to the smallest detail. Knowing exactly what’s going to happen beforehand, investigators like Davis and Chaz can be sent through into Snapshots to gather evidence or to witness the actual crimes that take place, which may then lead to arrests and charges in the real world.
There are a lot of rules, though. While Snapshots are perfect recreations of a day in time, real people who are sent through can affect the world just like it is their own. Any changes are called deviations, and they can be large or small. People are also recreated in Snapshots, called dupes. They are not real, but they might as well be for all intents and purposes—after all, they are flesh and blood, they retain the same personalities and memories as their originals, and most importantly, they also have no idea they are in a Snapshot. The only way they would find out is if they are confronted by a Snapshot agent, who is the absolute authority while he or she is on the job. Snapshot agents can still be hurt and even die while they are in a Snapshot, but they also carry special badges that allows them to overrule the civil rights of any dupes around them, which gives them access to places and information that they likely wouldn’t have gotten back in the real world.
When the story begins, we learn that Davis and Chaz are in a Snapshot of May 1st, ten days in the past. Originally assigned to do routine evidence gathering for a case they’re working on, the two of them end up accidentally stumbling onto a crime scene of a mass killing. To Davis and Chaz, this seemed like the perfect opportunity to catch a wanted murderer, but their precinct orders them to stand down and walk away instead, giving our protagonists no choice but to take matters into their own hands.
What follows next is a pulse-pounding hunt for a serial killer as our two able investigators uncover even more gruesome details about the perpetrator’s crimes. If you’re even passing familiar with Sanderson’s work though, you’ll already know that things are never so straightforward. Yes, Snapshot is a mystery, but there are so many layers to this novella that I believe even non-fans of crime and detective stories will be able to appreciate it. For one thing, there’s the fantastic premise which adds several extra dimensions to the mystery plot, and our characters are thrown into situations that will really make you think. Basically if the concept of using Snapshots to solve crimes sounds fascinating to you, then you’re going to love all the thought and creativity that went into this story.
I was also floored by the ending, which for me was definitely one of those bug-eyed “What the hell just happened?!” moments. I had to playback my audiobook several times just to make sure I heard everything right. That too, is classic Sanderson. He has this way of leading you down a garden path, making you think everything is going one way, and then BAM, he’ll show you just how innocent and naïve you were. Looking back, I guess I should have seen it coming, but in the end that twist still managed to knock me for a loop.
I don’t often hand out such high ratings for a novella simply because so few have impressed me to this degree, but I’ll happily throw my full recommendation behind Snapshot, which I thought was a truly imaginative and brilliant read. One final thing to note, this novella apparently takes place in the same universe as the Reckoners, though any links are very minor and aren’t even all that easy to catch, so reading the series is definitely not a prerequisite. This story can be enjoyed entirely on its own, so if it interests you, I would say go ahead and jump right in.
Audiobook Comments: Snapshot was a very short listen, perfect for when you need an audiobook to entertain you for a couple of hours. I’ve had experience with William DeMeritt as a narrator one other time only (for Underground Airlines by Ben Winters) but he has impressed me once again. His voice really is quite perfect for a book like this, with his deep tones enhancing the story’s crime noir vibes by bringing them to the surface. If you’re considering this one in audio, I highly recommend it....more
Fun fact: The hippopotamus is widely considered to be the most dangerous mammal in Africa, responsible for more human fatalities there than any other large animal. Although they don’t look very threatening, they are extremely moody and territorial, often known to attack boats in the water or people on land with little to no provocation. Another fun fact: Back at the turn of the 20th century, U.S. Congress actually considered a bold initiative to import these animals to the bayous of Louisiana, in the hopes of creating these “hippo ranches” to solve the nationwide meat shortage as well as the growing ecological crisis caused by the invasive water hyacinth.
Obviously, this wild scheme never came to pass. But you just have to wonder, what if it had?
Happily, author Sarah Gailey was awesome enough to oblige us in River of Teeth, her alternate history novella envisioning an America that might have been if the “American Hippo Bill” had been passed…along with an added few hitches, of course—like, say, if about a hundred hippos had broken loose somewhere along the way, resulting in an out-of-control feral population making safe travel along the southern waterways nigh impossible. Taking place in the marshlands of Louisiana, the story follows a diverse group of hippo riders who come together to pull off a caper—or rather, I should say, an operation—to help the U.S. government rid the Mississippi River’s Harriet section of its feral hippo problem once and for all.
However, as the leader of the group, former hippo rancher Winslow Houndstooth has other plans. Gathering a team that consists of Regina “Archie” Archambault, a corpulent master thief; Hero Schackleby, a gender-neutral demolitions expert; Adelia Reyes, a very effective (and very pregnant) killer-for-hire; and Cal Hotchkiss, a hard-drinking, cards-cheating gambler who just so happens to be the fastest gun in the west, Houndstooth is prepared to pull a few strings in his contract in order to accomplish his true goal of revenge. Floating somewhere on the Harriet is the riverboat casino where he will find Travers, the ruthless businessman who took everything from him. Houndstooth means to see his enemy pay—that is, if only he and his allies can somehow survive the never-ending barrage of obstacles, including double-crossing backstabbers, huge explosions, and a river full of killer hippos.
Hands down, the best part of this book is its concept, which is worth the price of admission alone. It’s just so damn cool! To me, this is what speculative fiction and especially alternate history is all about: taking an idea inspired by a real event—in this case, Congressman Robert Broussard’s proposal of the hippo ranching bill in 1910 (that fell just short of being passed, alas)—and running with it, creating a wonderful new world full of potential. I simply love picking up books like these, knowing that anything is possible. Not to mention, hippos are a great subject; for one thing, they’re fascinating creatures, and two, many people underestimate just how dangerous they are, but Gailey does both these points justice by highlighting the environmental, cultural and societal impact of these animals every chance she gets in her story.
My major complaint, however, is one that I often have with novellas—River of Teeth was just too short, preventing anything from being fully developed. World building, plot elements, and characters all felt a little sparse, leaving me worked up by the end, yet still feeling strangely unfulfilled. Part of me wishes that the story had provided more background information behind the process of hippo farming, or hey, maybe even a mention from someone on what eating hippo might be like (I’ve heard that hippo steak is delicious, but don’t take my word for it). I was also disappointed in the characters. Save for maybe Archie, whose charm I found irresistible, I felt no real connection to or interest in the rest of the cast. Thing is, while I love diversity in my books, I am less enamored with “diversity for diversity’s sake”, which often leads to characters becoming defined by labels and not who they really are, leaving their personalities themselves paper thin and forgettable—especially in the case of this book, where a good number of them are killed off or taken out of the picture rather quickly in a short period of time. It’s worth keeping in mind too that we have a relatively large cast for a novella, so opportunities to get to know each of them well were already limited.
However, as you can probably tell from the positives I highlighted, River of Teeth was still a book I enjoyed. While it didn’t draw me in as much as I thought it would, at no point did I find the story slow-moving or boring, and I can also see the world and characters becoming more fleshed out as more books are added to the series. Sarah Gailey has written a fun little adventure with lots of potential, and already I am eyeing the sequel Taste of Marrow with great interest....more
Reading Martha Wells is always such a delight, but All Systems Red seemed like such a departure from her usual projects so I had no idea what to expect. As it turned out though, this little novella was a real treat.
Told from the point of a view of a rogue SecUnit—a part organic, part synthetic android designed to provide humans with protection and security services—this story takes readers on a journey to a distant planet being explored by team of scientists. Accompanying them is our protagonist, a self-proclaimed “Murderbot”, whose presence is required by the Company sponsoring the mission. Thing is though, Murderbot doesn’t exactly feel warm and fuzzy towards humans, and it knows that the scientists aren’t too comfortable with having a SecUnit on the team either, given the cagey way they get whenever it’s around.
Still, that’s just fine for Murderbot. Having hacked its own governor so that it doesn’t have to follow Company directives, all it wants is to be left alone to enjoy the thousands of hours of entertainment vids that it has downloaded from the humans’ satellites. Of course, no one can suspect that Murderbot is secretly autonomous, so it still has to go about its job like everything is normal, and this arrangement was working out just fine until one day, a routine surface test goes seriously wrong. Murderbot ends up saving the day, earning the admiration and curiosity of the team leader, Dr. Mensah. Soon, Murderbot is left with no choice but to take the lead in defending the scientists, when disaster strikes another neighboring expedition on the planet and threatens to come after them next.
Having read a few of the author’s Raksura novels, I was already familiar with her penchant for throwing readers into the thick of things, leaving them to gradually feel everything out for themselves. Thus I was unsurprised with the way this story opened—by unceremoniously dropping us into Murderbot’s head with hardly any context and minimal background information given. It takes a while to even grasp the kind of protagonist Murderbot is: an artificial entity, albeit a very sentient and self-aware one, complete with personality quirks and a dry sense of humor. While I’ve read plenty of books starring robot protagonists, I can honestly say I’ve never met one quite as unique and interesting as Murderbot. Martha Wells may be tight-fisted when it comes to the details, but she knows exactly how to get your attention. Everything from Murderbot’s anti-social tendencies to its love of cheesy soap operas made me want to keep reading to discover more about the character and why it is telling this story.
At just a little under 150 pages though, and with so much ground to cover, there’s not much opportunity to stop and take a breath. As much as I loved how this book was so snappy and fast-paced, you do have to find your footing quickly or risk getting left behind. This means learning and familiarizing yourself with the characters as soon as they’re introduced, and most of them, like the humans on the science team, are only going to be lightly sketched. This was probably my only criticism; considering how over time, Murderbot comes to see the team as “its humans” and become very protective of them, it would have been helpful to develop those characters a bit more, especially since our protagonist begins this tale by being very disdainful of them.
Still, there wasn’t much else I didn’t enjoy about this book. It was entertaining, and more importantly, it also felt complete to me, unlike a lot of novellas that leave me wanting more. Plus, this snarky first-person narrative style is quite different from what I’m used to when it comes to Wells, but I think I could grow to like it! Murderbot’s narration was a joy to follow, and I even found myself chuckling at many of the story’s scenes. Overall, I found myself pleasantly surprised, and I definitely would not hesitate recommending All Systems Red to anyone looking for a quick sci-fi fix with a fun and captivating premise. I was excited when I found out this was going to be a series, and I can’t wait to check out the next installment of the Murderbot Diaries....more
In the interest of honesty, I picked up Lost Souls without realizing that it was part of the Cainsville sequence, so that probably had an impact on my rating. Still, despite my oversight, I really enjoyed this novella, and I think fans of the series who are familiar with the characters and the subtle nuances in their relationships will no doubt appreciate it even more.
As urban legends go, few are as well-known as the one about the “Vanishing Hitchhiker” or its many variations. The stories all roughly begin and end the same way: A driver encounters a hitchhiker on the side of a lonely road, but after picking them up the hitchhiker subsequently disappears without any explanation. Kelley Armstrong has adopted this motif for the central premise of Lost Souls which stars Gabriel Walsh, a lawyer who takes on a side job investigating the case of a man alleging to have been led astray by a vanishing hitchhiker in the form of a young woman in a white sundress. Gabriel would have been tempted to dismiss the story as a hoax if the circumstances around the incident hadn’t been so strange. For one thing, why would the man risk jeopardizing his successful career and marriage by filing a false report? Also, there have been a string of similar vanishing hitchhiker sightings in recent years, but a suspicious number of them have ended up with the witnesses committing suicide not long after—exactly forty-eight hours after picking up the hitchhiker, to be exact.
Plus, if there’s one thing Gabriel loves, it’s a good mystery. Lately, his relationship with his friend and employee Olivia Taylor-Jones has been on the rocks, and he has hopes too that presenting her with an interesting puzzle like this would help mend fences. In the wake of their rift, Liv has taken off on a vacation and Gabriel finds himself missing her, even if he has trouble admitting it to her or anyone else. Given their shared love for the strange and the weird, this case of the disappearing hitchhiker might be their chance to reconnect again.
Since I have not read any of the main books in the Cainsville series, I know I’m probably missing a lot here, so keep in mind these are the opinions of a newcomer to this world and its characters. The main struggle I had was with the character behaviors and motivations. I found myself exasperated with Gabriel and Liv, namely because all the drama surrounding their relationship is based on miscommunication and misunderstanding—pretty much the oldest trick in the book. While backstories were provided for both, without the deeper context of the series I had a really hard time sympathizing with Gabriel’s excuses for being jerk or Liv’s reasons for being so manipulative. That said though, the story itself was relatively easy to follow, and references to past events were freely provided. Not once was I confused or overwhelmed. So while Lost Souls is clearly intended as a companion novella to the main series, the fact that I was able to follow along just fine is no small feat.
For Cainsville fans, the interpersonal relationships and character development will probably end up being the main draw, though personally I also loved the mystery plot in between these sections. Armstrong adapts the urban legend of the vanishing hitchhiker to great effect, making it a race against time for our characters to find the answers. There are even ties to Gabriel’s past, giving me the chance to know him better. Perhaps my only complaint about the story is the ending, which I thought was anti-climactic and too abrupt, but it’s a minor issue in the big scheme of things.
All told, Lost Souls is probably best tackled only if you are caught up with the main series, though speaking as a relatively new fan of Kelley Armstrong, not having read any of the other novels did not prevent me from enjoying it either. If anything, reading this novella made me even more curious about Cainsville. I also wouldn’t hesitate to recommend Lost Souls if you simply want to read more by the author; she’s an amazing writer who knows all about creating suspenseful drama, and even in this compact novella you will be sure to find all the ingredients of a good urban fantasy mystery....more
Snowed is a story about Christmas, but it is definitely not like your usual schmaltzy Christmas book. It stars Charity Jones, a sixteen-year-old biracial student with a natural talent for all things science and engineering. At her high school in a conservative county of California though, this only gets her mercilessly bullied because she is different. Thankfully, for Charity there’s one bright spot in this bleak situation: Aidan, the sweet mild-mannered teen runaway whom her family takes in as a foster child. No one know where Aidan came from, but it is clear that he is running away from something—something terrible.
Still, despite his reluctance to share much about his past, Aidan and Charity wind up hitting it off and they quickly fall in love. Things actually start looking up for Charity, but of course this respite doesn’t last. The community is shaken one day, when the body of Charity’s worst bully is found behind the bleachers, savaged and torn apart. The authorities are quick to suspect a wild animal attack, but Charity isn’t so sure. After all, unbeknownst to the rest of the school, she was actually the first one to find the victim, and there was something strange she saw at the scene…
First, I want to go into the positives of this book, and there are certainly many. Number one is diversity. Kudos to the author for doing her best to include perspectives from all walks of life, even though her approach can be pretty heavy-handed at times, almost like she was making sure to check off all the boxes on a #diversereads checklist. Having main characters that reflect and honor the lives of all people is always wonderful though, and something to be celebrated especially in the young adult genre.
I also liked how Snowed was a Christmas story for those who might be looking for something other than the usual feel-good and campy holiday-themed books that flood the market around this time of the year. Personally, I love the festive atmosphere around Christmastime, but hey, it’s also okay to have a “bah humbug” moment every now and then. If you ever feel the need to take break from the holiday madness and the constant barrage of holiday-themed music and TV hitting you from all directions, then this book is the answer. Forget the warm and fuzzy feelings, because this is one dark book that likely won’t be filling you with the holiday cheer by the time it’s over. On the other hand, how cool is it that we get a story that explores Krampus lore and presents a darker, more sinister side to the figure of Santa Claus?
And now for the things that didn’t work so well for me. The big one was the extreme-to-the-point-of-contrived stereotypes. All the horrible people at school bullying Charity are of course the jock and cheerleader types, all of them white, bible-thumping and gun-happy ignorant rednecks according to our protagonist. The irony is that Charity frequently comes off as even more judgmental and patronizing as the people she rails against. There are also very few responsible and admirable adult characters, which is a pet peeve of mine when it comes to YA. Charity and her friends paint the police as a bunch of incompetent meatheads, while Charity’s parents are portrayed as a couple of dopes in denial, helpless in stopping her deranged psychopath of a brother hurt her and everyone she loves. The teachers are also apparently too busy planning their own holidays (or worrying about new charter schools opening in their county, threatening their precious hegemony) that they can’t be bothered to do anything about serious problems like bullying and death threats to their students.
In fact, the narrative tries very hard to make you think that Charity and her little “enlightened” group are the only ones capable of getting anything done. Not only was this unrealistic, it just made Charity and all her friends intensely unlikable. Furthermore, Charity also can’t help but remind readers every other chapter that she’s into science, robotics and technology (yet apparently not computer savvy enough to prevent her own email account from getting hacked). I agree we need to encourage girls and young women to enter and succeed in the STEM fields, but there’s no subtlety at all in the way the author is trying to prop up her protagonist as a poster child for the cause.
Finally, I didn’t like the romance. In my opinion, the instalove and Charity’s dramatics actually undermined a lot of what the story was trying to achieve, removing some of Aidan’s mystique. After knowing him for little more than a week, Charity professes to love Aidan so much that she can’t live without him, that she “dies every minute” they’re not together, or that losing him would be like the worst thing that’s ever happened to her (even worse than when Grandma Jones passed away!) In retrospect, the overwrought and sentimental adolescent language probably didn’t help either.
That said, overall I had a good time with Snowed. Ultimately it’s a book with some great ideas but which might be lacking in polish when it comes to execution, though it’s nonetheless impressive especially since we’re talking about a book from a small indie publishing house. Admittedly the story could have been streamlined to bring the horror aspects and Krampus plotline to the forefront while toning down the exposition and romance, but I also have to give it credit for its diverse cast of main characters and the fact that it also explores difficult topics, including a few that don’t get talked about much, like the emotional struggles that families of incarcerated teens go through (and I actually wish this had been given more attention in the book). All told, an interesting read that offers something a little different for the holidays....more
Infernal Parade by Clive Barker is a novella containing a series of short stories which, including the illustrations (by Bob Eggleton), comes in at under 100 pages and probably took me less than an hour to read. For such a slim volume though, it held a surprising amount of fascination for me. Thing is, out of context, the half dozen or so tales in here might seem a little random until you know a bit more about their history. Back in the early 2000s McFarlane Toys put out a couple lines of horror action figures which came distributed with portions of fictional pieces about them written by Barker as an added incentive. “The Infernal Parade” was one of these toy lines, inspired by a nightmarish circus filled with monstrous attractions and other gruesome curiosities. It included six figures.
Things kick off with the tale of our ringmaster, the convicted killer Tom Requiem. Hanged for his crimes, he nonetheless returns from the brink of death to head up a literal freak show spotlighting the terrifying and the tortured. From all across globe and even into the mythical realms, Tom scours through time and space for creatures to join his macabre parade, starting with the woman he murdered, Mary Slaughter the blade swallower. The two of them are next joined by Elijah, a bloodthirsty golem that killed the master who created it; the tormented members of Dr. Fetter’s family of freaks; the Sabbaticus, a monster out of the wilds of Karantica; and last but not least, Bethany Bled, the prisoner in the Iron Maiden.
These are their stories, brought together in this one handy collection. They don’t form a single overarching narrative per se, since each tale can be read as a standalone, in any order, as they were meant to accompany their individual action figures. If you think about it, it’s actually rather ingenious, because having glimpsed the actual Infernal Parade toys on comic book and game store shelves over the years, it’s not hard to see why some might be repelled by their disturbing and grotesque nature (as striking and gorgeously detailed as they are)—but if you happen to be a Clive Barker fan, a horror buff, or perhaps you are simply curious about a particular figure’s backstory, I can understand the appeal behind these shorts. The stories in here are each around 6-10 pages long, but there’s a world of imagination packed in every single one. They feel very much like creepy little fables or grisly tales you would tell around a campfire.
That said, even knowing the origins behind Infernal Parade might not not take away the clipped and disjointed feeling of this collection, though in all fairness I don’t typically do well with the super-short fiction format, so this might actually work better for others than it did for me. To their credit too, each story left me wanting more—in the good way. As intended, they feel like snippets in a character’s life story, specifically the circumstances around how they joined up with Tom Requiem and became a part of his parade. As much as I enjoyed these individual tales though, they often left me with the sense that the best is yet to come. For example, I probably had just as much fun imagining in my head everything that would happen in “the after” once this hideous crew got on the road. Where would they tour? Who or what would come out to see them? Think of the sheer potential behind all these crazy scenarios.
Bottom line: those looking for a more substantial read or something that feels more “complete” might not find it here, though if you’re a Clive Barker fan or a collector of rare fiction, it doesn’t get much cooler than this. Infernal Parade is a very special opportunity to get your hands on a unique collection of his short stories that might be tougher to find these days. Even if you’re reading Barker for the first time (like I was) I feel this book would be a wonderful introduction to his dark and distinct style....more
With the deft touch of a master storyteller, Peter S. Beagle weaves a strong thread of mythology into this gorgeous and emotional tale about love, sacrifice, and courage. Reading In Calabria is like stepping through a veil and into a dream, crossing into that secret and magical place where everyday life comes face to face with the fantastical. It’s an unforgettable, stunning experience.
In a small village nestled in the peaceful and scenic countryside of Southern Italy, there lives a man named Claudio Bianchi. Becoming increasingly aloof and grumpy in his middle age, he prefers to keep to himself on his farm, tending to his crops and animals while writing poetry in his spare time. His only regular visitor is a postman who comes to his place twice a week to drop off his mail. Life is quiet, routine and uncomplicated, and it’s the way Bianchi likes it. But that all changes in an instant, when our protagonist looks outside one morning and spies an impossible creature gazing back at him from his fields. It is a golden-white unicorn—heavily pregnant too, if Bianchi isn’t mistaken—and for some reason, she has chosen his farm as the place to give birth.
All of a sudden, Bianchi is filled with a new sense of purpose and inspiration. He has promised La Signora, the name he has given the unicorn, that he will keep her and her baby safe. His poetry also come more easily to him now, with her in his life. That peace, however, turns out to be short-lived. Eventually, the rumors start spreading that unicorns have made their home on Bianchi’s land. His farm is sudden swamped by media, trophy hunters, and all manner of nosy busybodies. But worst of all, there are the ‘Ndrangheta, an organized crime group based in Calabria who have come to Bianchi with an offer to buy his farm and the unicorns on it, threatening him with dire consequences if he refuses.
Magical realism fans are going to want to take note for this one. It’s a short and simple tale, but packed with some powerful themes. I’ve always loved stories with unicorns in them, especially those that portray them in meaningful ways, and if anyone can be relied upon to write a book that does just that, it is Peter S. Beagle. The unicorn has long been a symbol of purity and healing, and as we watch Bianchi’s life unfold, it becomes clear that he is in desperate need of some of that magic himself, as much as he may want to deny it. His character is taciturn, a little standoffish, but you can also tell Bianchi is a man who takes pride in his independence and accomplishments. Behind that gruff exterior is a kind heart and plenty of evidence that he cares about the people around him, which is why I found him likable despite his flaws.
There was also a romantic side plot in this that I didn’t see coming, nor did I expect to enjoy it so much. There’s a considerable age difference between the protagonist and his love interest, and while in general May-December relationships can be tricky to pull off, I thought the portrayal of Bianchi and Giovanna’s courtship was sweet, sympathetic, and subtle enough that it doesn’t take too much from the main story. It always warms my heart to read about two very different people coming together, finding an understanding and connection that ultimately leads to something more.
The setting is also something that stands out. This story of course takes place in the eponymous southern Italian region in a bucolic community characterized by hills and farms. The world is presented as this almost surreal mix of the modern and the traditional, showing the juxtaposition between things like smartphones and ski resorts to Bianchi’s low-tech farm and his ancient, barely-running Studebaker. In my opinion, it’s the perfect backdrop for a story like this; if you can suspend reality for a moment and imagine the possibility of unicorns just magically popping up somewhere in the world, I can easily picture it happening in a place like this.
Needless to say, I really enjoyed this book. It’s a short, quick read, but despite its novella-length page count, In Calabria will draw you in and make you feel like a part of its breathtaking world. Highly recommended for readers who love genuine characters, evocative settings, and storytelling with a touch of pure magic....more
I’m deeply ashamed to admit this, but I had not actually read anything by Ursula K. Le Guin before picking up this anthology. From the moment I saw The Found and the Lost though, I knew it would be the perfect chance for me to rectify the situation. For the first time ever, every novella published by this renowned fantasy and science fiction icon can be found in one place, together at last in this gorgeous hardcover collection.
Here’s the full list of the stories, and what I thought of them:
Vaster than Empires and More Slow – A group of scientists journey to a distant planet on a mission of exploration and research, bringing along with them an empath whose role is to detect the presence of intelligent life once they arrive. However, his sensitivity to his co-workers’ emotions makes him an ornery crewmate to be around, causing much tension among the team. What a great opening story to grab the reader’s attention and kick off this anthology. It is intensely gripping and atmospheric. Fear plays a huge role in this story—fear of the unknown and of what we don’t understand. It’s a subject that carries through well, ultimately culminating into a somewhat abrupt but unexpectedly poignant ending.
Buffalo Gals, Won’t You Come Out Tonight – Inspired by the magic of animals and their relationship with humans, this story tells of a young girl who becomes lost in the desert of the American Southwest. She is rescued by Coyote and brought to a community of animal characters who are effectively like people—a perspective I found both fascinating and a bit difficult to wrap my head around. Drawing heavily from Native American folklore, Le Guin creates a world that blends reality with mysticism, and the results are quite often surreal but also breathtakingly beautiful.
Hernes – “Hernes” is not among my favorites in this anthology, but it is nonetheless intriguing and thought provoking. Covering the lives of four generations of women, the story weaves together multiple tales of love, ambition, heartbreak, and self-discovery. It can be somewhat confusing at first to see how all the threads tie together, but I loved the author’s empathetic treatment of her characters’ struggles as well as her portrayal of the mother-daughter relationships by alluding to the Greek myth of Demeter and Persephone.
A Matter of Seggri – Seggri is a world where the number of females is six times greater than the number of males. For the most part the two sexes live completely separate lives, with the women making their homes in medieval-style villages while the men dwell in castles. While this story pulls us back into science fiction territory, it also features the author’s none-too-subtle endeavor to explore the nature of gender roles. At first, it may seem that the men on Seggri have it all—they compete in sports games to entertain themselves, later basking in the adoration of the females who want them to sire their children. As it soon turns out, however, the situation is much more complicated. This story wasn’t among my favorites either, but there are certain elements that I think will hit hard emotionally.
Another Story or A Fisherman of the Inland Sea – Hideo grew up listening to his mother tell him the legend about the fisherman who was seduced by a sea-princess only to return home afterwards to discover that centuries have passed. When Hideo later on becomes a physicist, he has the opportunity to embark on a journey that involves faster-than-light travel, and thus the connections between the fairy tale and the main character’s own life are revealed. The concept of time dilation or time warping often provides interesting twists in these kinds of stories, and I suppose this one is no exception, though after reading it I couldn’t shake this feeling that something was missing. Later on, I discovered this was supposed to be a companion story to a couple others that were published in another anthology. While I enjoyed this one well enough, I wonder if I would have liked it more if I had gotten the context from the other stories.
Forgiveness Day – Speaking of interconnected stories, I believe these next three were all first published together in an anthology called Four Ways to Forgiveness. They have several themes in common, namely those that surround the subjects of slavery and freedom, suppression and liberation, order and rebellion. I loved “Forgiveness Day”, which tells of an envoy named Solly who travels to another world and is assigned a bodyguard named Teyeo. The two of them are water and oil from the start, though as the story progresses we are given an opportunity to see the situation from both points of view. I liked this one’s message about individual biases and how personal histories are shaped by experience. To sympathize with others we first must change our own way of thinking, and that starts with looking within ourselves.
A Man of the People – The narrator in this story spent his childhood growing up in the rural and sheltered community before heading out to discover all there is in the wider world. This is a tale featuring themes of freedom but also highlights the idea that we should never forget our pasts. I liked how much this one added to the discourse about the importance of empathy and involvement.
A Woman’s Liberation – This story has strong ties to the last, and really should be considered together. Both feature protagonists who have complicated histories and struggle with their individual identities, questioning who they are and what they want. I liked this one a little more, however, due to the voice of the main character—a woman who is born an “asset”, or a slave—as well as her point of view on the issues that were covered in these last three stories.
Old Music and the Slave Women – This one shines a spotlight on Old Music, a character who appeared briefly in one of the previous stories. Here he gets to tell his own tale about slavery, courage, and revolution. While it was nice being able to revisit this character again, truthfully it was hard to get into the narrative because of the slower pacing and muddled presentation of ideas.
The Finder – This one will probably hold more significance for fans of Earthsea since it takes place long ago in that world, chronicling the life of a young shipbuilder boy who manifests magical abilities. Like the other stories, the prose here is richly detailed and evocative, though my attention started waning as we drew closer to the end. It’s a shame because this story has a lot going for it, but it might have dragged on for a little too long.
On the High Marsh – Another tale from Earthsea, I had a hard time getting into this one as well because of a lack of connection I felt to the main character Ged (who I later learned was an Archmage of the Roke magic school, the origins of which were covered in “The Finder”). That said, I don’t often do well with side stories like this that focus on characters or events from the main books of a series.
Dragonfly – After struggling a little with the last few stories, “Dragonfly” was one that swept me off my feet. This third Earthsea story also appears tie into the main series; more specifically, I hear it’s sometimes been called a “postscript” to Tehanu, and again I wonder if I would have gotten even more out of it had I read the book first. I loved the eponymous main character, an earnest girl who is also a bit rough around the edges from being raised by an angry, alcoholic father. Through sheer persistence and courage though, she manages to gain entry into Roke, an all-male magic school. Overall, I really enjoyed this story’s themes, especially its message about the power of women’s magic and how a little determination can go a long way.
Paradises Lost – This one is about a generation ship and explores what it means for the people who are born and raised aboard during the long voyage. These are the generations descended from the original pilgrims, but it is their own descendants that will reach the final destination, not them. Le Guin speculates how this would affect the travelers both emotionally and spiritually, and the kind of society they might create. I love stories about generation ships and colonization, and this is perhaps one of the more philosophical ones I’ve read. There’s compassion and realism in it too as Le Guin gets right down to the issues that really matter to the people in that situation, and asks the questions that many other authors don’t address.
For Le Guin fans, this anthology is a must. But for new readers too, there is a lot to love. It’s true that some of the stories are better than others, and there are even a few that, when taken out of their original context, might be a little confusing especially if you’re unfamiliar with the author’s different worlds and cycles, but overall it serves as a great introduction to her style and the themes she writes about.
More importantly, the stories in here are an excellent showcase of the author’s astounding talent and deepness of thought, proving why her work has remained so beloved throughout the decades. Reading this was an absolute gift....more
What a fun little book! Not to be missed by fans of Hearne’s Iron Druid Chronicles, but even if you don’t follow the series, it might be worth taking a look. When this novella landed in my lap, I briefly debated whether or not I should read it, since I am woefully behind on the main series and I know a lot has happened to the characters since I last visited this world. I worried that I would get too confused or lost.
Well, for readers who might be wrestling with the same doubts, let me put your minds at ease: no prerequisite reading is required before jumping into this one. Of course, if it would help if you know a little of the basic foundation behind the Iron Druid Chronicles, i.e. our protagonist is Atticus O’Sullivan, a 2,000-year-old druid living in modern times with his faithful Irish wolfhound Oberon. Everything else is going to be pretty easy to pick up along the way, not to mention The Purloined Poodle is a whole different animal anyway. Pun absolutely intended.
For one thing, the entirety of the tale is told through the eyes of a dog. That’s right, Oberon fans, urban fantasy’s most popular pooch gets his very own book. In the main series, Atticus’ ancient druidic status gives him access to a full suite of nifty powers, including shapeshifting and having an ability to commune with the natural world. That also extends to being able to talk with his dog, and in every Iron Druid book I’ve read so far, Atticus and Oberon’s conversations always manage to become the highlight. This probably goes without saying, but if you find the two’s psychic exchanges as entertaining as I do, then you will love this.
What I enjoyed most about this novella was how “dog-like” Hearne managed to sound while writing from the POV of Oberon. I was laughing from the very first page, reading about his thoughts on canine butt-sniffing etiquette. Like his human, Oberon is also well-versed in all forms of geek culture, so expect tons of pop-culture references. But humor is only one part of this equation; the story quickly builds into a mystery, as a routine walk through the park leads to Oberon and his owner to discover a string of abductions in the Pacific Northwest involving prizewinning dogs. Local police already have their hands full dealing with people cases, so it’s up to Oberon to convince Atticus to help the victims’ owners to look for their stolen pets.
Right away, I knew I’d missed some key events in our characters’ lives, since the last time I saw them they were still in Arizona. The main cast seems to have expanded a bit too. Happily, these are just background details. This novella is part of the main series timeline, but it’s probably more accurate to call this one a short side-story, a lighthearted little detour. It doesn’t matter if you aren’t caught up anyway, because we’re not going to be focusing on the humans too much.
Not only is this narrative all about the dogs, I simply love how this book portrays the relationship between Oberon and Atticus. It’s clear that the two of them are best friends who dote upon each other, and when latter indulges the former, I can’t help but think of one of my own dogs, who’s also a big, lovable goofball like Oberon. It just makes me want to take this book and shove it into the hands of all my dog-lover friends, because I know they will appreciate the beauty of the human-dog bond that Hearne captures here so well.
And like I said, the story is also entertaining and funny as hell. Knowing what I do about its doggy protagonist, I went into The Purloined Poodle expecting a few chuckles, but Oberon really brought down the house with this one. I was impressed that an entire story told from his perspective would work so well, figuring that being inside his head would start to get on my nerves or his narrative get stale after the first twenty minutes. Not so, though. The novella format was well-suited for a story like this—just long enough to be satisfying, but also short and sweet enough that it doesn’t wear out its welcome.
Dog lovers, urban fantasy enthusiasts, and Iron Druid fans take note: if you are one or any combination of the above, I would highly recommend reading The Purloined Poodle. It won’t take long and it’s the perfect escape; a great way to spend a rainy afternoon or a quiet evening in, curled up on the couch with your special fur baby and this wonderful little novella....more
Penric and the Shaman is another bite-sized adventure starring Lord Penric and Desdemona, though four years have passed since that fateful day the two “met” on the road. Our eponymous protagonist has become a full-fledged sorcerer and a divine of the Bastard’s Order, having earned his braids. Now working in the court of the Princess-Archdivine, Penric is content with as a temple scholar spending his days poring over books and scrolls.
However, the peace is broken one day when a Locator of the Father’s Order named Oswyl shows up, hot on the trail of a murder suspect. The wanted man is also purported to be a shaman who has stolen the soul of his slain victim, preventing the dead man’s ghost from being claimed by one of the five gods. After appealing to the Princess-Archdivine for the services of a sorcerer, Oswyl gets assigned Penric, and together with a small group of guards they travel into the mountains in search of the fugitive.
As we soon discover though, nothing is as it seems. This book is told from the points-of-view of three characters: Penric, Oswyl, and Inglis. This last perspective is from the titular shaman himself, the alleged murderer who actually turns out to be a lot more than he appears. When we first meet him early on in the story, his desperation feels different from what you would expect from a truly guilty man.
The three threads here provide a larger picture than what we got from the first novella, which mainly focused on the developing relationship between Penric and Desdemona. This does mean the demon has a smaller role, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t slightly disappointed by her diminished presence. As usual though, Bujold’s characters are her forte, and this book is stronger because of the fascinating dynamics resulting from the increased number of POVs. Penric’s cheeriness, for example, was nicely juxtaposed by Oswyl’s dour and mirthless demeanor. Pen can’t help being the happy-go-lucky nice guy that he is, and half the fun was watching how easily he could push the Locator’s buttons.
Even more groundbreaking were the revelations presented here about shamans and sorcerers, implying strongly that Inglis’ powers may be the flip side of the same coin to Penric’s. We’re also reminded that Penric is more than just a sorcerer; he’s also a divine, and now he’s about to go up against a challenge that will take all his learned skills and abilities. As a sequel, Penric and the Shaman does a first-rate job growing our protagonist and expanding upon his unique role.
Bottom line, this series is a must-read for fans of Bujold’s fantasy, and the best part is, you can even read these two books by themselves, completely separate from the Chalion series. If you’re curious about the World of the Five Gods, this could also be a fine place to start. These charming little novellas feature everything I love about the author’s writing, and don’t underestimate their short length because these compact tales can still pack a lot of punch....more