Made Things – Pulls The Right Strings

44581532I have a fear of dolls. Or maybe not a fear, so much as I find them intensely off putting. Their miniature faces are creepy, and any horror story that involves dolls coming to life and murdering people deeply upsets me. So, when the lovely people at Tor.com sent me Made Things, a novella by Adrian Tchaikovsky about a dollmaker who brings her creations to life, I had mixed feelings. On the one hand, Tchaikovsky is one of the most imaginative writers of the last decade and I generally like almost everything he writes. On the other hand, creepy murder dolls that might infest my nightmares. It is safe to say that I was negatively disposed to the concept from the start, thus the fact that I loved this novella should say something about Tchaikovsky’s skill as a writer.

The plot of the book is short and sweet: Coppelia is a street thief, a trickster, a low-level con artist living in a famous magical city. She is an urchin barely scraping by in a metropolis run by elite archmages. Normally this would spell doom for a person in her situation, but Coppelia has a little magic up her sleeves. She is a skilled puppet maker and has survived by stealing money from unsuspecting tourists through a puppet show. However, recently her creations have been coming to life. She discovers she has the power to infuse tiny homunculi with life, and she is not the only one. By teaming up with these made things they have opened doors for her into new opportunities. They don’t entirely trust her, and she doesn’t entirely understand them, but their partnership seems to work well. However, when they make a magical discovery that threatens to destroy the city they all call home, they must make some hard choices.

I know that plot description was fairly vague, but this is a novella and I didn’t want to spoil too much. The story is a lot of fun and involves a lot of politicking, character growth, a heist, and some really cool magic. The world-building has an impressive amount of detail for a novella. The city feels fleshed out and lived in, the magic feels complicated but adheres to clearly stated rules, and the threats/antagonists are easy to identify and rally against. A lot of this is helped by the cast being so likable. There are essentially three leads and a large support cast. For the leads, we have the aforementioned Coppelia and two homunculi: Tef and Arc. All three are wonderful and each have unique wants and agendas that are explored through the story but revolve around a core theme – survival in a harsh world. For Coppelia, that means scraping together a living in a world that cares nothing for her. For Tef and Arc, it means scraping together an existence in hiding when the world would pull them apart to see how they work.

The homunculi, in general, are fascinating. Tchaikovsky has done an impressively imaginative job of exploring all sorts of made people. There are one made of wax, paper, steel, wood, and any other substance you can think of. Some are small, some are large, some can fly, others are immobile. And for each, Tchaikovsky provides a window into how their existence, and personalities, are defined by what they were made from. A large steel doll might be courageous and brash, but have a phobia of water and rusting. A homunculus made of paper sees threats to her existence everywhere, as a simple tear could mean the end of her. Together they make an eclectic and fascinating people that are fun to explore.

The book is a rollercoaster ride with a fast pace and an explosive end. I read it in a single sitting and never thought once about putting it down. The ending does feel slightly abrupt, but that is often par for the course with novellas and is more a problem with the medium than anything else. Tchaikovsky’s Made Things is a fun, well built, adventure that helped me look at magical dolls in a new way. It has an interesting world, likable characters, and attention to detail when it comes to bringing these homunculi to life. Hopefully, this novella will be the starting point of a new novel as I want to dig a little deeper into everything. I would love to come back and overturn more rocks, dredge more canals, and explore more magical vaults to discover what else Tchaikovsky has hidden in Made Things. You probably can’t go wrong with this short story, and I recommend you check it out.

Rating: Made Things – 8.0/10
-Andrew

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A Pilgrimage of Swords – A Guided Tour Of Nightmares

a_pilgrimage_of_swords_by_anthony_ryan_1Anthony Ryan is having a busy year – not only did he just release the much anticipated, The Wolf’s Call, but he also has an upcoming novella from Subterranean Press. The novella is called A Pilgrimage of Swords, and I was kindly sent an advanced copy in exchange for an honest review. As such, here is my honest one-line take – I have never wanted to lift a book plot into a Dungeons and Dragons campaign more. It felt like highway robbery that this story was only a novella, and not a full book, as I was dying to explore the world and learn more about its characters.

The premise of A Pilgrimage of Swords is simple but elegant: 200 years ago in the book’s world, a god named the Absolved went insane and imploded the country he presided over, turning it into a wasteland called The Execration. Originally his lands were filled with countless magical wonders and beauty, but all of it has been perverted to grotesque parodies of what they once were – and all of the lands are hostile to those who venture onto it. His subjects have turned into flesh-eating monsters, the trees have turned into flesh-eating monsters, the random assorted rocks that litter the landscape have turned into fles– you know what you get the idea. Everything inside the Absolved’s country is terrible, so why would anyone ever go there? Well, because rumor has it that if a pilgrim reaches the center of this cursed land, they can find the mad god himself still residing there. If you are crazy enough to brave his lands and make it to him, there is a chance that the Absolved will grant you a wish.

As I mentioned, the route to the Absolved is a hellscape taken from the nightmares of Lovecraft, so not exactly an exciting prospect. Yet, there are those desperate enough to make the journey, usually when life has cruelly left them no other options. These poor individuals gather at the church of the Absolved, whose priests sacrifice their lives to send as guides into the wastes in order to better know their god’s will. As such, the pilgrimage is made in groups in order to increase chances of survival. Our cast is a group of individuals on one such pilgrimage. The cast has no names, for names are left behind when an individual takes this journey. Instead, each member of the party takes a moniker to represent why they are going on this quest. Our protagonist takes the moniker “The Pilgrim,” which doesn’t win many points for originality, but he has a cool possessed sword so I gave him a pass.

Our story follows The Pilgrim and his co-questers as they cross a variety of horrible areas of Execration. The guide provides a really easy storytelling mechanism and feels very natural as he explains what each area of the Execration used to be, and what it has become. Ryan has a great imagination and the various areas that he takes the reader through are super cool. However, the real fun of the book comes from the cast of mysterious adventurers. A large part of the book is figuring out tiny bits of information about the seven individuals in the party making the pilgrimage. Their personalities, and reasons for going on the insane journey, are slowly revealed over the course of the novella and make for a very compelling read.

The novella is short and sweet and I don’t have a lot of critiques for it. As always, because the novella was a lot of fun, I was left wishing it had been a full novel. The ending was probably the weakest part of the story, though I still liked it. I just found the worldbuilding and mysterious atmosphere to be stronger than the reveal at the end. One exciting thing about the ending is it left the doorway open for a follow-up novel, something I really hope Ryan pursues.

A Pilgrimage of Swords is an engrossing adventure for anyone who likes a story with a great atmosphere and imagination. It is short, sweet, and will leave you wanting a lot more. Regardless, the novella will keep you on the edge of your seat from the first to the last page, and I really hope that Anthony Ryan does more in this world. If you are looking for a new novella to mix up your reading schedule look no further than A Pilgrimage of Swords.

Rating: A Pilgrimage of Swords – 8.5/10
-Andrew

Perihelion Summer – Maybe Some Will Like It Hot

819ginw4kvlClimate change is an issue that has plagued me ever since I walked out of the theater after seeing An Inconvenient Truth. I was always a bit of an environmentalist, having been exposed to Fern Gully: The Last Rainforest as a small child, but this felt bigger than my seventeen-year-old brain could comprehend. The documentary was the catalyst for the veritable avalanche of books and films that would eventually lead me to working in renewable energy. It has only been in the past couple of years, however, that I really began to feel the need for art to speak about climate change. Science can only predict and describe the effects, but stories can help us figure out how we feel about it. In an effort to find stories that echo my own anxieties I happened upon this novella. Greg Egan, in his new book Perihelion Summer, captures a snapshot of anxiety and need for cooperation in a rapidly changing environment, but falls short on the emotional impact I was hoping to find.

Perihelion Summer follows Matt and some of his friends as they wait out a cosmic event aboard the Mandjet, a self-sustaining aquaculture rig. A black hole called Taraxippus is on its way through our solar system and is predicted to affect the earth in numerous ways. However, as it approaches, scientists notice it is, in fact, two small black holes, completely negating any predictions they had made. As Taraxippus passes, it changes Earth’s orbit around the sun, causing summers to be hotter and winters to be colder. In effect, climate change has been immediate and exacerbated, forcing the world to adapt on a schedule not its own.

The plot is interesting enough and centers more around the people and their reactions than it does the state of the world. Egan rightly focuses on the trials of a small group of characters, some of whom planned to be together during the event, and others who just happened to be there. It adds a personal and human touch to the events knowing that when an apocalypse does come, you will not be with who you want, but who you are around. I think this happens fairly often in stories of this nature, but Egan avoids the easy pitfalls. There are not characters that stand out as “the problem character” or “the one who will get everyone killed.” Instead, the story’s tension develops naturally through the stress of catastrophic environmental change, instead of some racist shouting that he or she will not share boat space with “the others.” And while I groaned at a specific choice that led into the third act, it became more bearable as the book came to a close. It felt like Egan was specifically using it to point something out about developed nations more so than an irrational character choice.

I did not feel any particular attachment to the characters, no matter whether they were the primary voices or just folks in the background. I do not know if the distance was my fault or Egan’s, but I did not relate to Matt as much as I would have assumed. He is a smart guy with a plan who did his damnedest to convince his family to be as well-prepared as he is. While Matt acted logically, he was driven by an innate sense of keeping those closest to him out of harm’s way, even risking himself to do so. They are all qualities that I admire, but for the life of me, I could not get involved with Matt as much as I was involved with the story. The characters surrounding Matt felt more interesting and had a human spark that was easy to care about. I cannot remember most of their names, but I remember their roles on the boat, their backstories, their anxieties and who they wished to protect. I do not know what it was about Matt, but he just did not make much of an impression on me as a reader. I found that kind of sad because it made some of the weightier emotional punches that centered on him fall flat for me.

Where Egan really nailed everything was society’s response to the crisis, particularly the adaptations offered as solutions by different cultures from around the globe, such as the domes China proposes to install over their cities. The pure anxiety and immediacy of the problem filled every page. Watching the chaotic climate take shape was like pouring milk into a fresh mug of coffee, knowing that as it swirled it was impossible to separate the two again. Egan delivered it sparingly and from a distance, with reports and rumors from the news and other seafarers their oceanic fleet encountered. It all seemed plausible, with national borders simultaneously losing their shape and being touted as more important than ever before. Every aspect of life had to change, and plans shifted constantly to meet new problems. I liked most that Egan avoided falling on empty platitudes of sustainability through technology or sitting it out. Everyone was affected, and everyone had to work to survive.

I like aspects of Perihelion Summer but it did not hit me as hard as I expected. Part of it may be that I felt it was too short, and some of Egan’s ideas about adaptation only scratched the surface of my mind. Maybe I follow some of the climate stuff too closely, and this was just another warning shot. It might be more effective to those who are not so tuned into it. I hope that is the case, because there is a hell of lot of work to do, regardless of what the business world or the talking heads say. I believe Egan did not write this to be a blueprint, but to add his voice to the conversation that needs to be had now, instead of in ten years. We need more stories like this, from different voices, different backgrounds, and with different fears. And maybe that is why I did not connect with Matt- because his anxieties were mine, I already knew them inside and out. However, the concerns of my neighbors, my family, my coworkers, and of people across the world are not something I sit with every day. Maybe that is the next step- to reach out and talk about this before it gets worse because we are all in this together. We all bring different perspectives, skills, and strengths. It’s time that we used them.

Rating: Perihelion Summer – 7.0/10
– Alex

Vigilance – About What I Expected

51jlcyt6qilSo, Robert Jackson Bennett has a new novella out – its called Vigilance. The lovely people at Tor.com know I think Bennett is some sort of literary Midas, so they kindly sent me an ARC copy of the story in exchange for an honest review. Now, while it is definitely true that I think Bennett is one of the best fantasy authors out there, it could be argued Vigilance is a slight departure from his usual work, and is much more of a post-apocalyptic political piece. However, everything I have read from Bennett thus far has been a fantastic fantasy novel with a hidden brilliant political manifesto inside. In the same vein, Vigilance feels less like a change in style for Bennett and more like he trimmed the fat from a full novel and put the core driving values of the story on display.

Vigilance is a 200-page novella on gun violence and a commentary on the direction that America is headed, with its mentality and legislature surrounding firearms. The book gives a glimpse into a decrepit America a few decades in the future. With growth crippled by us vs. them national policy, and an increase in weapon sales via fear mongering, America has become a reoccurring news cycle of gun violence and tragedy. Faced with the realization that gun violence was only going up, a media and marketing studio essentially made a reality show out of mass shootings under the pretext of “hey, you have to experience mass murder one way or another, you might as well have a shot at making money off of it.” The show debuts to grand success and is dubbed Vigilance, for the idea that everyone in America must always be vigilant.

The plot follows McDean, a managing director of Vigilance, as he strives to maximize the viewership of the show through algorithms and marketing techniques. The chapters slowly break down the methods that he used to incorporate such a horrific show into the daily life of Americans, and the path of events that led to the USA willing to embrace it. We also follow a second character in the general populous; a bartender and gives a glimpse into what the daily life in the US is like. The result is a truly depressing tale that made me feel like walking out my front door protesting guns and the rhetoric behind them.

Vigilance is a stunningly well-argued piece on an imagined future for the current US political path. Full disclosure, I abhor gun violence and I was worried that my biases might make it hard to objectively review this story. However, having finished I find it the most compelling argument I can think of for the anti-gun side of the argument. This is not an unbiased thought piece, and if you find yourself on the pro-gun side of these issues, I do not think you will like it. For me personally, Bennett uses his smart prose, excellent pacing, and copious narrative skills to put into words feelings and ideas I, and I will bet many others, have wanted to express, but lack the ability to do. Vigilance, like everything Bennett writes, is an excellent piece that I think everyone should read.

Rating: Vigilance – 8.5/10
-Andrew

The Ballad Of Black Tom – Not Going To Dance Around This One

51y55ipp1jl._sx311_bo1204203200_I’m certainly not a prolific reviewer – you can take a look at the history of the blog and see that without too much difficulty. At the same time, since joining The Quill to Live I’ve reviewed a decent amount of horror stories. I’ve come to some conclusions on what attributes great (or just my favorite) horror tales share. These are certainly not commandments written in stone from on high, but when I truly enjoy a spooky story it tends to share the following traits.

Great horror stories are short. I’m not saying something needs to be five pages long to be scary, but the longer you spend on a subject the more it tends to move out of “horror” and into being just “scary”. I find the sweet spot is right in the novella length, somewhere between 70 to 150 pages, long enough to unfurl the entirety of itself but short enough to leave you uncertain what it was that you just experienced. I find in the longer stories you tend to be left with a few scary moments, rather than a truly horrifying experience.

There are no “Good Guys” in great horror stories. The very existence of a Good Guy in a horror story means that it’s a scary story, not a horror story. Any kind of tale can be scary, all it requires is a distinct kind of tension and discomfort. To be truly horrifying a story needs to be bleak, hopeless even. In a great horror story, the characters who survive to the end haven’t won, they’ve merely prolonged their role in the tale.

You can’t “win” a great horror story. Regardless of the outcome, whether the big bad ostensibly won or lost, everything is worse at the end of a horror story. Sometimes there is no right answer, and the best in horror makes sure there isn’t a happy resolution.

An awful lot of whinging for what was ostensibly a review of The Ballad of Black Tom, the novella by Victor LaValle, right? With a lead-in like that there are only two potential opinions I can have on the book. One: I loved it, and this is all an elaborate way to review the book without actually saying anything about it. Two: I hated it, and this is all an elaborate way to lead into me tearing this book to shreds with visceral glee.

It will put LaValle’s mind at rest, in the vanishingly small chances that he’s a member of our loyal readership, that Black Tom firmly falls into the first category. I absolutely loved the story and wish I could talk about a number of things that I’m unable to without ruining some of my favorite aspects of the narrative. I shouldn’t need to, but will regardless, say that Black Tom is perfectly pithy and short, the characters are complex and flawed, and the story ended in a compelling and chilling fashion. I won’t say anything else here, as I don’t want to influence you going into the book. It really is a frightening story in the style of the old weird authors, and manages to twist the telling of the story in a way that I think makes it all the more interesting and adds a sense of realism to the otherworldly horror that makes up the majority of the narrative.

If you don’t enjoy frightening short stories and the mention of Cthulhu is enough to make you put a book down, this book won’t change your mind and I don’t think you should pick it up. If you enjoy stories that leave you paralyzed by doubt, discomfort, and distress on their conclusion, I think you’ll find this one to be right up your alley.

Rating: The Ballad of Black Tom – 9.0/10
-Will

Exit Strategy – A Temporary End To A Story That Shouldn’t Stop

91itaaw8fvlI feel a bit weird having devoted three whole posts to a series of novella (first two can be found here and here), but Martha Wells is worth it. The Murderbot Diaries, of which All Systems Red just (deservedly) won the Hugo for best novella, comes to a close this year with Wells’ final installment, Exit Strategy. However, for those of us understandably obsessed with the four novella series – there has recently been an announcement that Wells will be continuing the series in a full length book. This is good news for two reasons: 1) I want more Murderbot, 2) the novella format was starting to wear a little thin.

Exit Strategy is another great addition to the four-part series, but I would hazard to say that it is the weakest of the group. All the things you love about the series, its great characters and exciting world, are still there – but the book didn’t quite blow my mind as much as its predecessors. The beauty in the Murderbot novellas is Wells’ ability to tell a tight, exciting, and poignant story – with the emotional impact of a full length novel – while cramming it into a byte sized piece. Exit Strategy feels like it falls short in this regard because it is left with the impossible task of wrapping up the greater storyline, while also telling its own story. Exit Strategy manages to do both these things, but at the cost of pacing and space. The first third of the short story feels like it’s just set up, which doesn’t leave a lot of room for action and character development. This is the first of the four shorts that I felt would have been better as a full novel, so I am excited that Wells is transitioning the series to that space.

Otherwise, Exit Strategy is still fantastic. Murderbot is still hilarious and relatable, and there is some serious cathartic release when they finally put the hurt on the antagonists that have been making Murderbot’s existence terrible for three previous books. The humor in particular is probably the best in the series and had me laughing aloud at multiple points. There unfortunately isn’t a new AI foil for Murderbot, unlike in Artificial Condition and Rogue Protocol (again, probably due to a lack of space). This is a shame, because Art and Miki were incredible and really helped bring Murderbot’s character development into the forefront of the story. Then again, since this is technically the end of the series I get why additional character development wasn’t a focus. Plus, Murderbot is pretty fantastic as they are now and I don’t know what direction they could go in to be a better person/robot.

In conclusion, Exit Strategy is still pretty phenomenal despite not quite reaching the heights of its predecessors. I still wonder why I have written about 5 pages of detailed review when a simple “seriously, go read this” would have done just as well. I can’t think of a better, or safer recommendation than The Murderbot Diaries – it is a story you can’t help but love. Be sure to grab Exit Strategy the moment it comes out, and then join me in endless speculation as we wait for the full length novel.

Rating:
Exit Strategy – 8.0/10
The Murderbot Diaries – 9.0/10
-Andrew

Rogue Protocol – She Can’t Keep Getting Away With This

512phkhzbnlI am back with another short review for a novella, and it’s once again for Matha Well’s incredible Hugo winning Murberbot Series. The award for best novella was definitely deserved for the first book in the series, All Systems Red, which I reviewed here. However, today we are here to talk about the third short story in the series, Rogue Protocol.

The story still follows the titular Murderbot as she bumbles her way across the universe. Outed as a rogue security unit, and attacked by a shadowy organization, Murderbot decides to hunt down some information and secrets about this nefarious group and expose them – hoping that doing so will finally allow her to consume media in peace. To accomplish this, Murderbot travels to a collapsing terraforming station owned by the shadow organization that is being slowly destroyed to cover up some dastardly crimes. When murderbot arrives on the station with a human scrapping/science crew, they find that the station is a little less abandoned than they hoped.

As usual, Martha Wells balances horror, mystery, humor, intrigue, and compelling characters to pack an enormous amount of punch into this short story. Each of the novellas shows the growth of Murderbot as a person (I realize the irony in this statement) and focuses on new people imparting her with life lessons. In Rogue Protocol we get Miki, a sickeningly adorable manual labor bot who is treated like a friend by their human owners. It is a different take on the AI/human relationship that Murderbot had not seen yet – and her reactions to it make quite the read.

Rogue Protocol took a little while to get started compared to the other to stories in the series. It felt like there was a disproportionate amount of travel at the start, but it did do a great job for setting the stage for the back half of the novella. On top of this, Rogue Protocol felt a bit short, even for a novella. However, all of this is washed away by the tides of emotions that will wash over you in the back half of this story. Martha Wells once again shows that she can humanize AIs better than most authors can humanize humans. I was honestly not prepared for how hard some of the messages in the back half of the novella were, and it helped me forgive every other of the novella’s short comings.

Be excited for this next installment, and sad that there are only four novellas planned so far – so we only get one more after it. Rogue Protocol was delightful and I would say you have to be missing a heart to enjoy it – but I think robots would like it too. Martha Wells has ignited my interest in novellas with this series and I cannot wait to see what happens to Murderbot next.

Rating: Rogue Protocol – 9.0/10
-Andrew