Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Review: Hounded

Hounded Hounded by Kevin Hearne
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Although I did enjoy this urban fantasy, I don't think I'll be reading more in the series, and that's mainly because of the main character.

First, he's overpowered. He's a 2100-year-old druid (who looks, and often acts, 21), and in this first book of the series he's already killing gods and sleeping with goddesses (and I use the plural for both of those advisedly). He's spent centuries making an amulet which functions like Batman's utility belt, and he starts the book with a near-invincible magic sword (and ends it with two). This doesn't leave the author much room to build up, or so it seems to me.

Secondly, there's the whole "acts 21" thing. He's a cocky fellow who thinks very little of either killing someone or sleeping with them, which reminds me rather too much of James Bond - a character I've never liked.

His dog is a lot more likeable. I believe there's a volume from the dog's POV, which I might read at some point.

Apart from the annoying quirk of joining independent clauses together with colons, and an occasional missing quotation mark, it's very clean from a copy editing perspective. But I prefer my protagonists more idealistic and more outgunned than this.

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Friday, 17 February 2017

Review: Shadows of Self

Shadows of Self Shadows of Self by Brandon Sanderson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I enjoy the Mistborn books greatly. The first trilogy is a wonderful mashup of epic fantasy and supers, while the second trilogy, of which this is part, is a mashup of supers and slightly steampunk Western. The protagonist's time in the Roughs, the frontier area, is told in flashback, though, and the current action takes place in a city, so it has a kind of urban fantasy vibe as well. The events of the first trilogy are legend and religion in the second, which is a great touch.

I listen to the Writing Excuses podcast and have watched some of Sanderson's videos, so I'm aware of his craft as I listen to these books. Mostly, though, I just immerse in them and enjoy them, while occasionally spotting a technique that he's talked about on the podcast or the videos.

For example, he sometimes talks about letting the reader feel clever because they guess the twist that's coming - and then doing something else that they haven't guessed. He definitely did that here; I saw the solution to the problem coming from miles away, in general if not in detail, but then he sprang a huge and completely unexpected revelation which suddenly cast the whole story, right back to the beginning, in a new light. This is top-class writing.

I listened to the audiobook, and the narrator does a wonderful job, particularly since one of the supporting characters is explicitly interested in accents and uses them in his crazy schemes. Combining comedy, tragedy and action, with a bit of police-procedural mystery and more than a little superheroism, and scattering reflections on identity, justice, the structure of society, and the search for happiness and freedom throughout, this is a book of many dimensions that I also found thoroughly entertaining and enjoyable.

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Review: Kalanon's Rising

Kalanon's Rising Kalanon's Rising by Darian Smith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I picked this up because I saw a positive review of it on the website for SpecFicNZ, an organisation that both the author and I belong to. (We're acquainted in real life.)

I wasn't disappointed; it's a compelling, twisty mystery in a high-fantasy setting, with well-developed characters. I completely failed to guess the identity of the antagonist, which was great.

I've shelved it as "deserves-better-editing," which is the tag I use for well-told stories that are a bit scruffy around the edges as regards copy editing. It suffers from Jackson Pollock commas, the occasional missing quotation mark, and a few homonym slips and typos, but nothing too egregious, and it managed to hold my attention and enjoyment despite these minor flaws. I had no issues with the story craft at all.

Overall, a promising start to what could be a good series.

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Sunday, 15 January 2017

Review: Dreadnought

Dreadnought Dreadnought by April Daniels
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I don't give five stars out lightly, but this book deserved them. At one and the same time a fine superhero tale and a startlingly powerful portrait of what it's like to be transgender, it weaves the two together seamlessly, and delivers both exciting plot and deep characterisation.

Danny has never felt like a boy, and so when the dying superhero Dreadnought passes his mantle on to the nearest bystander - Danny - the power transforms the teenager into Danielle.

She now has the basic Superman, or rather Supergirl, power set: flight, strength, invulnerability (slightly more limited than the Kryptonians). No heat vision, X-ray vision or freeze breath, though. Most of the possible variants on superpowers have already been rung over the past 80 years or so, and there's nothing startlingly new on that front here - there's even a passing mention of a billionaire with a utility belt and no powers - but that's fine. It's the personal journey of the superhero that we're concerned with here.

There certainly are a few familiar tropes: rescuing an airliner, for example. And when it comes to the transgender experience, there are some notes that anyone who's aware of what that community has to deal with will also find very familiar (because they really do happen all the time): the verbally and emotionally abusive, rejecting father; the "friend" who says terrible things; the radical feminist who refuses to accept a trans woman as a woman, who sees only a man invading women's space yet again. But all of these are dealt with in a way that I found emotionally true and deep. Seeing Danny simultaneously being a selfless, powerful, courageous superhero and thinking of herself as a selfish, powerless coward because of years of abuse was heartwrenching.

I can't give a higher recommendation than this: when I got to the end, if there had been a sequel available I would have bought it immediately. This book sets out to be a compelling superhero adventure and also an exploration of what it's like to be trans, and for my money succeeded admirably in both.

Speaking of money, I received (only) a review copy via NetGalley in exchange for my review.

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Monday, 2 January 2017

My Top 16 Books for 2016

It's that time again: time to do a retrospective post on the best books I read in the previous year. Earlier instalments are here: my top 15 books for 2015 and my top 14 books for 2014.

I didn't read as much last year as in the previous two years, which surprised me a little when I saw the numbers. I wasn't as obsessive about noting and reviewing everything I read, and a couple of books I read didn't have Goodreads entries, but I don't think that made all of the difference between the 101 books I read in 2015 and the 77 in 2016; I was also busy writing, and wasn't commuting for most of the year (so I didn't listen to as many audiobooks, or read during lunchtime at work).

Goodreads doesn't seem to have the same graphic as it has the last couple of years - at least, I can't find it - but I managed to find the URL that gives me a list of the year's books (https://www.goodreads.com/review/list/941876-mike?read_at=2016&sort=rating&view=list, for future reference), so I can do a similar summary.

I read 11 books out of 77 that got 5 stars, compared to 11 out of 101 in 2015 and 9 out of 104 in 2014, which is a good trend. I also read 12 3-star books (19 in 2015, 23 in 2014) and one 2-star book (2 in both 2015 and 2014), leaving 53 4-star books, by my calculation (68 in 2015 and 70 in 2014).

Either I'm getting better at picking books I like, or my standards are slipping. Either way, the bulk of the books I'm reading continue to get 4 stars, meaning I enjoyed them and they were well done, but they weren't so well done or so enjoyable that they deserved a fifth star. Three-star books I didn't dislike, but they were either lacking in execution or failed to enthuse me; a two-star book, for me, is pretty much a failure, neither well executed nor enjoyable, though showing some hint of potential that lifts it above one star. I haven't read a one-star book in several years, because I don't finish books that bad (and don't rate books I haven't finished).

So: the countdown. Let's start with the best of the 4-star books, the ones that almost made it across that 5-star threshold. Competition was fierce in this group, with only four places available, and several others almost made it.

Links are to my Goodreads reviews.

15. Knight Moves, Walter Jon Williams. One of Williams' complex, engaging meditations on the posthuman condition, which I enjoyed despite its occasional pessimism.

14. An Accident of Stars, Foz Meadows. Portal fantasy is back, and this is a fresh, contemporary take on a genre that dates back to the 19th century, but was particularly popular several decades ago. A diverse, and mostly female, cast struggle and are realistically impacted by the problems they face in a well-imagined world.

13. Burning Bright, Melissa McShane. Smoothly written, excellently edited, with an exciting and absorbing plot, this is Patrick O'Brien meets Julian May: psychic powers in the Regency British Navy. Misses out on five stars only because I didn't feel the worldbuilding had been thought all the way through.

12. Hallow Point, Ari Marmell. Noir and urban fantasy collide, pick themselves up and make a smart remark. A principled but pragmatic hero and a clever plot kept me glued to the pages.

Now the 5-star books. A really good crop this year, and it was hard to rank them.

11. Elements of Fiction Writing - Characters and Viewpoint, Orson Scott Card. The only nonfiction book in this year's top list, this guide to characterisation is written with insight and clarity. (From the days before Card went off the deep end.)

10. Ancillary Mercy, Ann Leckie. While not as amazing as the first book (because some of what makes it amazing is no longer a surprise), this is a worthy conclusion to the trilogy, beautifully layered and doing clever things with point of view. More of an unfolding of meaning than a conventional plot, something that's hard to do at novel length.

9. A Christmas Gone Perfectly Wrong, Cecilia Grant. This lovely little romance demonstrates that novellas aren't always just novels that haven't had enough development; sometimes they're tightly plotted, beautifully executed stories of exactly the right length.

8. Dreams of Distant Shores, Patricia McKillip. A collection of lyrical, beautifully imagined short pieces which demonstrate that magic doesn't have to have known rules if you're using it to bring the characters to realisations, not to solve their problems.

7. The Facefaker's Game, Chandler Birch. A gripping adventure for a character I wanted to see succeed, in a grimy, slightly steampunkish setting that's skilfully depicted.

6. Magonia, Maria Dahvana Headley. This author has perfect command of voice, as I noticed in the beautiful Runyonesque she published on tor.com a couple of years ago, and here that mastery is on full display - along with a suspenseful plot, vivid characters, and fantastical worldbuilding. Also a great reflection of the experience of living with a chronic illness.

5. The Long List Anthology, David Steffen. These short stories came close to Hugo glory, and they deserved it; emotionally powerful, excellently crafted, richly human and sparkling with imagination, they even managed to make me like some kinds of stories that I usually don't.

4. Futuristica, Volume 1, Chester W. Hoster. I set this above The Long List Anthology simply because the fresh, vigorous, engaging stories in this volume were more consistently to my taste. Clever mashups, trope twisting and up-to-the-minute science abound.

3. Darkhaven, A.F.E. Smith. Complex, conflicted, distinctive characters negotiate multiple intertwined subplots in impeccable prose to form a compelling story. 

2. Vigil, Angela Slatter. Avoids the risk of being just another cookie-cutter urban fantasy through flawless execution coupled with an unusual richness of development and variety in the characters' relationships. 

1. Chalice, Robin McKinley. As beautiful and emotionally resonant as you'd expect if you've ever read any of her other work, and set in a fascinating world.

Because two of the collections had male editors, this makes 7 out of 15 books with male authors or editors, and 8 with female authors (even though the content of those two collections is, by a small margin, majority female). I tend to read roughly 50:50 male and female authors, without setting out to do so, though I sometimes have runs of one or the other; 10 out of last year's 15 authors were male, and 4 out of 2014's 14, for comparison, so out of the 45 books that have made my top lists in the past three years, 21 are by, or are edited by, men.

I look forward to more excellent books in 2017.

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Review: Scientific Romance

Review: Scientific Romance, edited by Brian Stableford.

Before the term "science fiction" was invented, stories of scientists and their possible discoveries, of fantastic (but at least remotely plausible) voyages, and of strange (but not overtly supernatural) phenomena where known as "scientific romances" in France, Britain, and the US. This volume collects a number of these early works, from all three countries. 

I read an ARC from Netgalley, so I don't know if it's due for another editing pass before publication; the version I saw had a number of scanning recognition errors that had not been corrected. Picking these up requires painstaking work by a good proofreader, and they're the bane of any book based on a scan. 

Setting that aside, the stories themselves varied from the merely historically interesting to some that I still enjoyed as a modern reader. A few are clumsy explorations of philosophical points. There seem to have been a lot of socialists, for example, who expressed their ideas by means of scientific romance - not just H.G. Wells, the giant of the field in Britain, who is represented here by "The Star," but several others too. I don't mean to imply that all the socialist stories are mere clunky propaganda pieces; "The Child of the Phalanstery" by Grant Allen is an extremely well-constructed speculation on the darker side of a utopia with an active eugenics/euthanasia program, and is relevant to debates going on today.  

Others of the stories are, now that we have so much more scientific knowledge, obviously impossible, though despite that, I found Jack London's "The Shadow and the Flash" still effective as a story. The same can be said of Conan Doyle's "The Horror of the Heights". But several succeed both as stories and in terms of their speculations. It's interesting to see some of the perennial themes: the danger of humans being replaced by intelligent machines, the creation of an unstoppable plague, the end of the world from various causes, radical life extension, interference with human memory. There's even a kind of predecessor to "Planet of the Apes" in Edmond Harcourt's "The Gorilloid".  

A number of the authors were familiar names to me: Nathanael Hawthorne, Fitz-James O'Brien, James Clerk Maxwell, Ambrose Bierce, Frank R. Stockton, Jerome K. Jerome, Jack London, William Hope Hodgson and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Others were new, mainly the French ones, which are presented in translations which read exactly like the English-language works of the time. 

There's a scholarly introduction - this is clearly a kind of literature on which the editor is an expert - and an appendix that lists the major works of scientific romance published from 1833 to 1914. I'm not sure why Frankenstein (1818) doesn't make the list; it seems as if it would fit the parameters. 

Most of the works here are, of course, by men (I believe Camille Debans' "The Dancing Partner" is the sole exception), and for a balance, anyone interested in early speculative fiction should read the stories in The Feminine Future: Early Science Fiction by Women Writers, which contains some excellent stories from a slightly different, but overlapping, time period (1873-1930). If you're interested in the roots of science fiction, though, either as a scholar or simply as a reader, Stableford's Scientific Romance is a good collection.

Saturday, 26 November 2016

Review: The Best of All Possible Worlds

The Best of All Possible Worlds The Best of All Possible Worlds by Karen Lord
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is one of those books that are becoming more common these days: thoughtful; slow-moving and mostly low-tension, with occasional bursts of action; good-hearted characters who are essentially early-21st-century liberals in their worldview; beautifully written and impeccably edited; fresh in premise; masterful in execution. Into this nameless and assorted category I would group Ann Leckie's Ancillary series; The Goblin Emperor; A Natural History of Dragons; and Chalice, among books I've read relatively recently.

It's also the kind of modern planetary romance that, say, Sherri S. Tepper or Julian May wrote; not a space opera, because it's not in space, and technically science-fictional, but with psychic powers playing a prominent role. It's even more reminiscent of Ursula K. Le Guin, and I would be astonished if Le Guin was not a huge influence on the author.

Now that I've set it in a context of other books and authors, what is it about? Well, one of the most prominent and highly respected races of humans, in a galaxy with several of those, have lost their planet and most of their people to enemy action. Because, for sociological reasons, more men than women spent time off-planet, there's now a shortage of women among the survivors, and they want to find ways to preserve their culture as well as their genetic heritage. (It turns out late in the book that, because of the way their psychic powers work, they actually don't do well at all if they're not pair-bonded, and they may even become dangerous; but this isn't developed very much.)

Accordingly, on a planet which for various reasons has become a destination for many groups of refugees and displaced people, the proud and self-disciplined race are looking among the cultural groups descended from those of their people who left their planet or were pushed out in the past, in the hope of finding brides. The main character, a local civil servant, is assigned to help them in this quest, and ends up having the universe's least romantic romance with the leader of the search.

Even though I call it an unromantic romance, it was still quite sweet, just as the civil servant was interesting (and wryly funny). The pace is unhurried, but it doesn't feel too stretched out; I wasn't bored, it just wasn't a constant barrage of plot incidents. There are certainly moments of tension, but if tension, passion, conflict and drama are what you mainly look for in a book, you shouldn't look here. They all occur, but, like the events of the plot, they're widely spaced and not, for the most part, built up to any great heights. It's more a thoughtful book than it is a spectacular one, and the overall tone is of warm-hearted maturity.

The title, of course, is from Voltaire's satire Candide, and he took it from Leibnitz; I'm afraid I didn't quite get the significance of the reference. The refuge planet is neither utopian nor dystopian, though it's peaceful, and with a few notable exceptions the people living there are well-disposed towards others.

It took me a while to figure out what the deal was with Earth, and where we were in the timeline. Earth is under a ban, meaning that nobody is meant to interfere with it or make open contact, but I wasn't sure until late in the book whether this was at our time or after it (it appears to be more or less at our time, though it could easily be some time before or after). Various groups have been rescued from disasters on Earth at different times, though, by mysterious guardians, and brought to the planet of refuge, which justifies - I suppose - the fact that most of the cultural references are to Earth culture. It's a bit of a worldbuilding shortcut, if not accompanied by any cultural references to any of the other cultures, and that, for me, was the most noticeable weakness in the book - if you don't count the missed opportunities to build up tension, conflict and drama, and I think that was a deliberate and understandable choice by the author rather than a failure of craft. (I also want to reiterate that those elements were present, just not front and centre.)

I do find, though, that I mostly respect these books more than I love them. Tension and conflict are the salt and fat of literature, and if you have a book that's all salt and fat, then you have literary junk food - meaning that it will be popular, comparatively easy to produce, and profitable, but not critically acclaimed or respected. But there are haute cuisine ways to use salt and fat to enhance the flavour of fine food, and sometimes these more languid books do miss opportunities to bring out their philosophical flavour with better seasoning. It's a tricky balance to strike. You don't want to distract from the reflective, insightful nature of the book by setting off fireworks all the time, but you also want to engage your audience emotionally as well as intellectually. For me, The Best of All Possible Worlds walked that line well, but for other people's taste it will fail.

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