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Monthly Archives: November 2019

“The Forbidden Stars” by Tim Pratt

Several times in the first two books of Tim Pratt’s Axiom Trilogy, characters mention the Vanir System, a human colony with which the other human polities have lost contact. No expedition sent to find out what happened to the colonists has ever returned. In the third and final installment, The Forbidden Stars, we finally discover why the Vanir System has been out of contact. The answer presents new challenges for Callie and the other crewmembers of the White Raven, as well as an escalation of their conflict with the Axiom.

As one would expect from the final volume in a series, The Forbidden Stars resolves several ongoing plot threads. One of these involves the Benefactor, a mysterious individual who’s been feeding the White Raven information about various Axiom facilities. In this book, the Benefactor sends an embodied AI called Kaustikos to accompany the crew on a mission. At first, it might seem like this steps on the toes of Shall, an established character who’s also an AI that often downloads itself into mobile robotic bodies. Pratt is careful to make Kaustikos’s personality and the appearance of his chosen body distinct enough that he doesn’t feel like just Shall 2.0.

Pratt also keeps up his record of introducing interesting and awe-inspiring technologies. The Axiom are played up as being almost godlike, walking advertisements for Clarke’s Law. There’s obviously a delicate balance to maintain in telling stories about such beings. If they don’t live up to their hype, readers will be disappointed. But if they’re too powerful, it will be hard to believe that the main characters could ever fight them effectively. Pratt keeps this balance nicely. When the function of the new Axiom technology discovered by the characters at the beginning of the book is revealed, it’s almost literally gasp-inducing. But because most of the Axiom are still in suspended animation, the conflicts faced by the crew are on a more manageable scale.

I do have one minor plot-related quibble. At one point, when Callie and company are in a bad situation, we discover that Callie had planted some devices to thwart the villains in such a scenario. While this is entirely in character for the intelligent and suspicious captain, it wasn’t foreshadowed at all, so it seemed to come out of left field.

I would have been happy to see the Axiom series continue, but The Forbidden Stars does bring both the overall narrative and individual character arcs to satisfying milestones. The trilogy was a fun ride and makes me eager to seek out more of Pratt’s work.

“The Winter of the Witch” by Katherine Arden

Katherine Arden’s Winternight Trilogy concludes with The Winter of the Witch, in which Vasya finds herself responsible for protecting not just her family or village, or even the city of Moscow, but all of Rus’. As the stakes escalate, so does Vasya’s power, but Arden keeps her relatable by giving her corresponding doubts and fears. For all her command of magic and growing rapport with the chyerti, Vasya isn’t always sure of herself.

Nor should she be, since the Winternight books portray magic as a dangerous force. Contrary to the beliefs of some human characters, it isn’t fundamentally evil. But its use relies on the caster “forgetting that the world is other than as you willed it,” so frequent use of magic can blur the line between fantasy and reality. A witch or sorcerer can lose their grip on what’s real, becoming detached from the world around them. As the central conflict of the book ramps up, Vasya is forced to use more powerful magic more frequently, putting her at risk of such a disconnection from reality. This is a great way of making sure that Vasya can’t solve all her problems by just throwing ever-increasing amounts of magic at them.

One major aspect of the novel that I really enjoyed, as well as my one substantive criticism, rely on spoilers, so I’ll discuss those below. Overall, it will suffice to say that The Winter of the Witch doesn’t always go in the direction one expects, and it brings Vasya’s story to a satisfying conclusion.

 

–SPOILERS AHEAD—

 

Throughout the first two books, the Bear has been Vasya’s enemy, so I was genuinely surprised by her realization that her task was not to permanently defeat him, but to repair the rift between him and Morozko. This dovetails nicely with the larger theme of humans and chyerti working together to protect Rus’ from outside invasion. For all that Vasya is capable of battle-magic, her true role in the story is as a diplomat, negotiating bargains and bringing people together. This is a great way of differentiating her from other fantasy heroes, and it serves to make the story more multilayered and interesting.

I was a bit underwhelmed by the second revelation about her heritage. We’ve known since The Girl in the Tower that there was something special about her great-grandmother, but there weren’t any previous hints about her great-grandfather. It’s only in The Winter of the Witch that we hear anything about her being a “sea maiden,” and the eventual discovery of what that means felt shoehorned in at the very end of the story. It doesn’t help that this doesn’t seem to really have any effect on Vasya’s abilities or character development. It just fell completely flat to me and was the one flaw in an otherwise compelling story.

Young People Read Old SFF

James Davis Nicoll started the “Young People Read Old SFF” project in response to an assertion by author Adam-Troy Castro that the classics of the SFF field are unlikely to inspire a life-long love of the genre in modern readers. The first iteration of the project presented young-ish readers (born after 1980) with older works in the genre, such as Jerome Bixby’s “It’s a Good Life,” Octavia Butler’s “Bloodchild,” and Daniel Keyes’s “Flowers for Algernon.”

Nicoll followed this up with a more focused version of the project. The readers in this new group would be looking at stories from Journey Press’s anthology Rediscovery: Science Fiction by Women (1958-1963). I’m one of the readers for this part of the project, and so far we’ve read and discussed two stories: Katherine MacLean’s “Unhuman Sacrifice” and Judith Merril’s “Wish Upon a Star.”

“Snowblind” by Christopher Golden

It’s no surprise that Stephen King provided Christopher Golden’s Snowblind with a front-cover blurb, because the book reminded me of some of King’s best work. While Coventry is implied to be a larger town than King’s old standby of Castle Rock, the close-knit relationships between the characters make them feel like they’re part of a smaller community. Which is good, because they’re going to need all the help they can get. During a blizzard twelve years prior, there were a number of deaths and disappearances, not all of which can be easily explained by icy roads or dangerously cold temperatures. The loved ones of those lost have tried to put their lives back together, with varying degrees of success. As another nor’easter approaches, they start to get hints that the danger of twelve years ago might not be entirely over.

The characters and their relationships are what really make the story work. While there’s a fairly large cast, Golden gives each of them enough space to let the reader see them as people. I found myself hoping, not just that they would survive and defeat the evil lurking in the snowstorm, but that a couple whose marriage was on the rocks would work things out or that a man whose life was in a downward spiral would find a way to pull himself back up. I think a big part of this is that the characters are allowed to have flaws. Many of them do react heroically when the threat becomes overt, but we also see them arguing with family or coping with past events in less-than-healthy ways. But because real people are like that, it makes the characters more relatable—their imperfections actually make them easier to root for.

Golden also does a great job juxtaposing winter’s beauty with both natural and unnatural perils. There are some lovely descriptions of Coventry’s “winter wonderland” appearance as the two blizzards blanket everything in snow. But he also shows us the downed power lines, the car accidents on icy roads, the people wading through knee-deep snow. On top of that, there are some genuinely pulse-pounding action scenes when human characters confront the things hiding in the blizzard. This is a suspenseful, well-written book, and it makes me look forward to reading more of Golden’s work.