Review of In Calabria by Peter S. Beagle

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This novella is a finalist for the 2018 World Fantasy Award. It was published by Tachyon and runs 174 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Claudio Bianchi is an aging farmer and sometimes poet in Calabria, Southern Italy. His farm is remote, generally visited only by the postman, and he’s gotten used to having no company but his own. That means it’s a surprise when a unicorn begins to build her nest under his chestnut tree. After a period of gestation, she drops a black colt. The secret gets out and suddenly news reporters, tourists, unicorn hunters and animal rights activists are trampling over Bianchi’s farm, looking for the mystery beasts. The unicorns are elusive, and eventually the horde of people thins, but then Bianchi gets a visit from a representative of the local crime syndicate. Bianchi refuses to sell the farm, which puts everything he has at risk, including his newly discovered love for the postman’s sister Giovanna. The crime syndicate ups the pressure, but there’s something no one has considered. Where is the male unicorn?

This story is character driven and is a positive, enjoyable read. It has a simple plot, and Beagle’s prose has a magical, Old World feel to it. Bianchi is a simple man who enjoys his wine, his cows, his cats and his poetry. We get a good feel for the farm and the old house, plus revelations about what made Bianchi the near recluse that he is. The best thing about this is the symbolism, though. As soon as we see that demure little unicorn on the front cover of the book, we know it’s going to be about sex, right? Bianchi is revitalized by his developing relationship with Giovanna, and the ending is very powerful. Beagle is a pro, after all.

On the not so great side, there’s not much in the way of action here—it’s not that kind of book. I didn’t come away with a good feel for the village, either, or the surrounding countryside. Also, there’s not much character development for anybody but Bianchi. Giovanna comes across fierce, but we don’t know anything much about her but that.

Four and a half stars.

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Review of “Old Souls” by Fonda Lee

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This short story is a finalist for the 2018 World Fantasy Award. It was published in the anthology Where the Stars Rise: Asian Science Fiction and Fantasy and runs about 8800 words. This review contains spoilers.

Not only does Claire remember her past lives, but she can read the past lives of others when she touches them. She has just had her 20th birthday and knows she has never seen her 21st. She visits a fortune teller, hoping for help, but finds the woman is a fraud. Pearl, a woman in the waiting room, follows her out of the business. Pearl has no past lives because she is one of the Ageless. She is searching for the soul of a man she knew in a previous life and she wants Claire to help her find him. Claire agrees, and is surprised to find the man is Kegan, her boyfriend Ethan’s brother. She lets Pearl know, and then finds Pearl has lied to her. Can Claire deal with Pearl’s deception? Can she break the pattern that has always taken her life before age 21?

This story is plot driven and moves along fairly smartly to a fairly violent climax. The characters are adequate, but not really deep, regardless that we know something about their past lives. Pearl’s deception isn’t a complete surprise because of foreshadowing. As Pearl says, everybody sets up a pattern. The details about student life add depth to the plot and the ending is emotionally satisfying.

On the not so great side, I’m not sure that satisfaction is justified. Claire thinks she’s broken her pattern, but it’s still a while before her 21st birthday, and Pearl is still out there. Maybe she’ll go on thinking she’s accomplished her goals, or maybe not. Also, what kind of pattern will Kegan follow now? We’re led to believe he’s an innocent, but could Pearl have been right about him?

Patterns aren’t really world-shaking, but you have to give Fonda credit for saying something a little different.

Three and a half stars.

Review of Rogue Protocol by Martha Wells

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Rogue Protocol is a novella, the third in the Murderbot Diaries series, following All Systems Red and Artificial Condition. It was released by Tor/McMillan in August 2018. Exit Strategy, the last installment of this series, is due in October 2018.

Finished with investigating its half-memories of a massacre at Ganaka mining pit, Murderbot hitches a ride on a passenger transport this time, planning to look into the activities of the GrayCris Corporation that attempted to assassinate Dr. Mensah’s team. Because it’s representing itself as a security consultant, it has to endure and mediate the conflicts the human passengers on this trip, but finally makes it to the transit station for Milu. It appears that GrayCris is illegally mining alien artifacts, and Milu is an abandoned terraforming operation that could easily have been used as a cover. The facility’s new owners have sent a team for assessment, and Murderbot catches a ride to the venue with their human security team. The security team has ulterior motives and the facility is hazardous, so problems quickly develop. Can Murderbot rescue the assessment team? Can it find evidence against GrayCris to help Dr. Mensah with her charges against the corporation? Stay tuned.

This installment of the story has many of the same good points as the original novella, including great characters and lots of strategy and action. This installment also makes more sense in the overall arc of the series than Artificial Condition did, as Murderbot has a specific objective related to Dr. Mensah and GrayCris.

It appears that Murderbot is getting more comfortable in the human world, and it’s starting to feel confined in small storage lockers. I’m not sure if this is evolution of the character or just that somehow it’s crossing over the line and becoming a little too human. The industrial machine quality of its personality is part of its charm, and I’ve not been thrilled with its emotional issues. Whatever, we seem to be working through those.

For a novella, this installment is still not worth the price, but almost (total cost of 4 e-book versions will be about USD$35). As a full-length novel, I’m thinking the series arc will be episodic, something like a TV mini-series that has to entertain weekly, but still make sense on a larger scale. This quality makes it hard to implement character development and world building, and I think both are suffering a bit from the structure of the work. It would be great if Wells could provide us a more in-depth adventure for the same characters.

Four stars.

Review of Shades of Magic (series) by V. E. Schwab

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Tor sent me a free ebook, so I went on to read the series. This is a fantasy tale consisting of three novels, A Darker Shade of Magic (2015), A Gathering of Shadows (2016) and a Conjuring of Light (2017). This review may include spoilers.

The City of London exists in four different realities, identified by color. Grey London is an ordinary place with scant magic; Red London is a place where magic is abundant; White London is ruled by tyrants and evil magic, and Black London is dead and sealed off, consumed by dark magic. Each living world has an Antari, a person born with blood magic that allows them to pass between worlds. These are Kell, fostered by the royals in Red London; Lila, a pickpocket with no idea what she really is in Grey London, and Holland, enslaved by the tyrants in White London. Kell is well treated, but feels unmet needs. As a result, he tends to compulsively collect artifacts from the different worlds which he keeps in a private room. He is targeted by a plot and accidentally carries dark magic into Red London. This sets off a struggle to contain the evil, and eventually he and Lila managed to send it, along with Holland, into Black London. They think they’re rid of the threat, but Holland negotiates with the dark magical presence in Black London and carries the evil back into Red. Can the residents of Red London find a way to save their world?

The best thing about this series is the concept and the world building. The series is very character driven, and Schwab expends large amounts of text in setting up the characters, with all their strengths and weaknesses, and in building relationships. This works very well in the first couple of volumes, while we’re becoming familiar with the setup and the characters and their ties to one another. For example, book 1 is mostly about Kell, how he works as a liaison and his relationship with the royals, especially his “brother” Prince Rhys. Book 2 is pretty much about Lila’s discovery of who she is and how she learns to work magic.

Book 3 is about 600 pages, dealing with the dark magic invasion, and here it appears that Schwab runs out of plot. There is a huge mid-story sag, running maybe 200-300 pages, where she fills up space by inventing past experiences for her characters and rehashing events for emotional effect. For characters with such huge responsibilities, various royals, plus Rhys, Kells and Lila, turn out to make very immature and poorly thought-out decisions. They also turn out to be the kind of people who repeatedly torture and abuse chained prisoners. Plus, there seems to be no rule of law here. I was not pleased.

I’ll have to split the rating. Books 1 & 2 get four stars because of the concept, but Book 3 gets a two. I almost quit half-way through it.

Review of Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse

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This is a fantasy novel released by Saga Press/Simon and Schuster in June 2018. An upcoming second novel in the Sixth World series, titled Storm of Locusts, is due for release April 23, 2019.

The Sixth World has dawned. Magical walls have arisen to enclose Dinétah, ancestral home of the Diné (Navajo), which protect it from the devastation of the Great Water outside. However, the Sixth World has brought the ancient powers back to life. Maggie Hoskie is a monster hunter, especially outfitted for combat by her clan powers and taken as apprentice by the immortal Neizghání, son of Changing Woman and the Sun. Now Maggie feels abandoned, as she hasn’t seen Neizghání in over a year. Locals desperate for help enlist her aid in killing a child-stealing monster, which sets her on the trail of whatever witch created it. When she consults her friend Tah, he recommends his grandson Kai Arviso to work as her partner. The two of them follow the witch’s trail through empty towns, to a tournament to the death and onto Black Mesa, where Maggie’s dreams warn her of failure and death. Can she find and overcome the witch behind the monsters? Can she deal with the evil inside herself?

So, Maggie is pretty tough. She is outfitted with an old pickup truck, a shotgun she carries in a holster, a good-sized Boker knife, obsidian and silver throwing blades, and a bandoleer of shells filled with obsidian and corn pollen. She has a dog pack, too, but they look to be pretty worthless at monster hunting. Kai is a sweetie with a silver tongue, and when that doesn’t work, he’s pretty good at healing and weather work. Because of Maggie’s slash-and-burn tactics, this starts off on a horrific note and continues with considerable violence. Kai does his best, but Maggie is resistant to healing. Still, she’s eventually forced to face her pathological issues and deal with at least a few of them.

This is reasonably character driven, but there’s more emphasis on the plot than on deep character development. I’d like to have had a bit more world building, more imagery related to the countryside, more ordinary people, and a feel for some of the everyday magic that must be present in the Sixth World. Given the clan powers Maggie and Kai have, this must be a fairly complex place.

On the pro side, Roanhorse is pretty good with symbolism, which makes Neizghání both Maggie’s idol and her nemesis. Kai is her opposite, his healing powers versus her thirst for blood. By the end, we’ve achieved at least a temporary balance.

Four stars.

Review of the Clocktaur War by T. Kingfisher

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This two book fantasy series by T. Kingfisher (a.k.a. Ursula Vernon) includes The Clockwork Boys (2017) and The Wonder Engine (2018). This set appears to be self-published.Vernon appears as an award finalist fairly often for her shorter works, and generally the stories are good enough that I’ve been meaning to read more of her work, so here we are. This review likely includes spoilers.

The Dowager Queen is getting frantic, as an army of mechanical centaurs called Clockwork Boys is devastating her kingdom. Previous expeditions have been unsuccessful in dealing with the problem, so the queen commissions a squad of criminals to go after the creatures at their source. This includes Slate, a forger, Brenner, an assassin and her former lover, Sir Caliban, a demon-possessed knight, and the Learned Edmund, a scholar of the church. This motley crew (except Edmund) is outfitted with magical, flesh-eating tattoos and set off on a journey to perform the impossible in Anuket City. Can they live through actually riding horses? Can they stop the war? Destroy the Clockwork Boys?

The best thing about this series is the humor. There are plenty of snarky comments in general, especially from Brenner, as romantic interest starts to develop between Slate and Sir Caliban. I actually laughed out loud as Slate and Brenner resort to palliative drugs to alleviate the saddle weariness. The plot is character-driven, reasonably complex and moves along pretty smartly, as the crew deals with threats along the journey and picks up the gnole Grimehug. There’s enough imagery and world-building to make Anuket City, and especially the gray market, come alive. It all works out to a surprisingly reasonable conclusion, considering the apparent impossibility of the task.

On the not so great side, the humor eventually got to be a bit much, along with the suspension of disbelief. The tipping point for me was in book 2, and had to do with the gnoles, a race of creatures apparently employed in the city for menial labor. They’re treated as inferior, but Slate and Grimehug form an instant bond, maybe because she treats em with respect? Whatever, there’s enough here to indicate the gnoles have a complex society and should have an agenda of their own—this is an entirely different story. Meanwhile, I can’t see why this bunch of dustmops would be happy to serve Slate and her team just because they’re asked. Plus, they lighten the plot too much when it should be getting darker and more serious.

The world-building here seems to borrow a lot from Bujold’s Penric series, including the demon possession, the gods and the structure of the church. The artisan works in Anuket don’t quite fit in. Why aren’t they widely marketed? Why don’t we see them elsewhere? And finally, I wasn’t really surprised by the plot-twist involving Brenner—I just don’t know why the other characters didn’t see it.

Niggles notwithstanding, this was fairly enjoyable. Four stars for the humor.

Review of Deadpool 2

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This Marvel superhero film is the second in the series, following Deadpool (2016). It’s directed by David Leitch and stars Ryan Reynolds, Josh Brolin, Julian Dennison and Morena Baccarin. It was released into theaters 18 May 2018. This review contains spoilers.

Since the events of the last film, Deadpool (a.k.a. Wade Wilson) has been touring the world, fighting ninjas, yakuza, and whoever else, looking for what meaning might be left in his life. He loses his girlfriend. He tries a stint as an X-man trainee, but it doesn’t work out. However, as a result of this, he ends up becoming the hero of a young boy with dangerous supernatural abilities. He tries to reject this role, but eventually brings together an X-Force team to rescue the boy from the evil, time-traveling cyborg Cable. Can he pull this off? Can he get his girlfriend back? Can he fix Ryan Reynolds’career mistakes?

We have to wait a while to get to the heart of this film, while Wade searches around for the theme. However, once he’s focused on doing the right thing, then we can get on with the plot. The remaining space is taken up with social commentary and jokes that make this pretty much a satire of superhero franchises. The gags go by fast, so pay attention.

The movie did get criticism for the “fridging” of Wade’s girlfriend Vanessa. For anyone who’s not familiar with the term, it refers to threatening, injuring or killing a superhero’s girlfriend to provide motive for the plot. That leaves the woman with a very limited role. Writers and producers agreed they had engaged in this gimmick, and suggested fridging Deadpool in a different movie. Turn about.

This film is all highly creative, of course, and the writing/directing crew doesn’t really care that they pierce the fourth wall and talk directly to the audience. They’re also testing a few boundaries as far as offensiveness goes. I see that Ryan Reynolds is listed on the writing team this time, so I’m wondering how much he has to do with the comedy and commentary. He’s certainly found his niche as the bad guy anti-superhero. Although this film isn’t as impressive as the first one, it carries on the tradition well enough. His X-Force team turns out to be surprisingly attractive, too, so I’m sure we’ll be seeing more of them.

One other thing that merits mention is the choreography and gymnastics stunts in these films. There was only one instance of the gymnastics here, but same as the last film, it was breathtaking air ballet from a real person. Well, okay—I just like gorgeous stunts.

Four stars.

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