Monday, 24 April 2017

Review: Heirs of Grace

Heirs of Grace Heirs of Grace by Tim Pratt
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Independent, modern young woman narrates, in First Person Smartass, how she was just an ordinary person with an ordinary life who didn't believe in the supernatural, but then it turned out that the supernatural believed in her, and around about the same time she met this guy...

There are hundreds of authors writing that exact book at the moment, many of them very badly; and when I see an instance of it, I usually move on, sometimes with an eyeroll, to the next book in the hope of something I haven't seen dozens of times before. But I was vaguely aware of the name "Tim Pratt" - I think I've read one or two of his short stories - and paused long enough on this one to get the sample and see if he wrote it well.

He wrote it very well indeed.

I was surprised, when I read the back matter, to discover that (as T.A. Pratt) he's the author of the Marla Mason series. I stopped reading that series because it is so completely unlike this. Marla is lacking in empathy, violent, and amoral; the protagonist of this book is intensely empathetic, and her rejection of the easy, violent solution gives us an ending that I found fresh, unexpected, and extremely satisfying.

Also, there's a mysterious magical house, and for some reason I love mysterious magical houses. There are some cool magical items, too, and the author wisely dodges the Q trap (where every single one of them turns out to be the only thing that will save James Bond at some key moment of the plot); some of them are simply cool rather than being at all useful.

I appreciated that the protagonist didn't rush into her relationship with the man she met, and that she took the time to communicate with him about something that could have split them apart (this is lampshaded as something that would resolve practically every romantic comedy plot much more quickly, and is a thing that real adult human beings do). She makes good decisions throughout, in fact - not only good-sensible but good-morally - so the plot is not driven by her stupidity and risk-taking, meaning that when the love interest saves her it's not infuriating.

Overall, annoying tropes are avoided or averted, the characters work well together, the protagonist's voice is genuinely witty and amusing, and we end up in an unexpected and satisfactory place after an enjoyable ride. This book demonstrates that even an overused premise can still be the starting point for a fresh and well-executed story.

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Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Review: Zeroes

Zeroes Zeroes by Scott Westerfeld
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A fresh take on the YA supers genre. No high-tech gadgets or inexplicable flying here; these teenagers have subtler powers, mostly to do with interaction with other people. Scam has a voice that, when he lets it speak, knows exactly what to say to get what he wants. It has knowledge he lacks, but doesn't have much wisdom, and is as likely to get him into trouble as out of it. Bellwether, also known as Glorious Leader behind his back, can influence other people to do what he wants. Flicker, who's blind, can see through other people's eyes. Anon is forgotten, or not noticed, by everyone, even the other Zeroes, even his family. Crash destroys technology. And Mob can influence the mood of a crowd.

It's a diverse group; Bellwether is Hispanic, Crash is an African immigrant, Flicker is disabled, and Crash, Flicker and Mob are female.

Scam is, frankly, a screw-up, and as you'd expect from someone who can usually get what he wants, not exactly the most admirable character. But he does try to do better, and partially succeeds. Along the way he gets the Zeroes involved with two separate groups of drug dealers and Mob's small-time criminal father (which is how Mob joins the group), and triggers a disastrous extraction from a police station.

The stakes are high for the characters, though they're not saving the world, just each other. Things go horribly wrong, and they fight hard and pull together to set them as right as they can, though that leaves some very rough edges.

The writing is as smooth and professional as you'd expect from Scott Westerfeld. I spotted one very subtle homonym error ("leeched" and "leached" are often hard to distinguish between, but when you're talking about vampires, it's definitely the "sucked out" rather than "washed out" one you want); a misplaced apostrophe ("peoples'"); and a minor typo, but since I spot about two dozen errors in the average book, this is nothing. The kids' voices are all similar, but the characters are different enough that it doesn't matter. The tension is well maintained and well resolved.

Overall, a good read.

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Friday, 7 April 2017

Review: Rotherweird

Rotherweird Rotherweird by Andrew Caldecott
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A highly unusual book, a kind of portal fantasy/historical fantasy/contemporary urban fantasy blend. It reminds me most of Robert Holdstock or Charles de Lint, though less ominous in tone than either.

There are a great many characters, and according to the author's afterword, there were originally a lot more. I had a cold when I read it, so my brain was fuzzy, and I sometimes had to think hard to remember who a character was when they were mentioned after being offstage for a while. I felt that it could have been achieved with a tighter cast; in particular, I didn't really see why the villain found it necessary to supply himself with not only a fake wife, but a fake son, since the son never seemed to contribute to his plans in any way. I could see why the author involved him (he played a minor, but important, role in the plot), but I couldn't figure out why the villain did so. The "son" was also oddly subservient to the villain, given the rest of his character.

One thing I disliked was that strong, fulfilling relationships between men and women were conspicuous by their absence. As well as the fake marriage, there are a couple of marriages which have obviously been contracted for political reasons, and in which the wife is a cypher, never developed as a character. Another marriage is threatened by the husband's drinking. I can only remember one relationship (the publican and his wife) where both partners are developed and effective, and where they don't seem to be in conflict, but that's because they don't seem to be in anything; they take action separately, but don't really have a scene together where they interact. The outsider who is the best candidate for "central character" (he's not really a protagonist, or less so than some of the other characters, but we spend a lot of time with him) (view spoiler).

The point of view is, I suppose, omniscient, though it mostly follows one character per scene (fooling me for a while into thinking it was third person limited), occasionally switching heads mid-scene. This is necessary in part because there's no one protagonist in the complicated plot.

The setting is a town separated by statute from England at large, to preserve a terrible secret. It's an odd mixture; it has a long tradition of scientific inquiry (something best done while not isolated, in general), and the school - a secondary school, not a university - produces cutting-edge research, yet there's little evidence of modern technology; the scientific prowess of some of the characters is an idea more than it is a developed element of the plot. The overall feel of the town is a lot closer to its Elizabethan origins than it is to the present day, which directly contradicts the strong imperative to forget about the past and forge towards the future. I felt that this aspect hadn't been fully thought through.

It's sounding as if I didn't enjoy it, but I did. The mysterious, and never fully explained, portals to the other world, the Elizabethan backstory, the various mysteries, and the joint maneuverings of the large cast kept me involved and interested. I did think it was, at one and the same time, over-elaborate and yet not completely worked out, but it shows a lot of promise, and I will be watching for the sequel.

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Review: Slaves of the Switchboard of Doom: A Novel of Retropolis

Slaves of the Switchboard of Doom: A Novel of Retropolis Slaves of the Switchboard of Doom: A Novel of Retropolis by Bradley W. Schenck
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An unusual book, in an enjoyable way; full of the tropes of 1930s pulp adventure, and yet told in a matter-of-fact, wry style rather than the hyperbolic manner of the early pulps. The chapter headings are the most hyperbolic thing about it; everything else is, if anything, understated. The hero approaches the problems he faces systematically, drawing on extensive practice, and apart from calling himself "Dash" is almost self-effacing. The main female character is firmly assertive about not being excluded from danger, and Dash is smart enough not to argue too much.

I was concerned early on when a number of short scenes introduced separate characters who were, it seemed at first, pursuing unconnected agendas. This is a style I've seen used before in humourous fiction, and it can easily lead to an overcomplicated plot full of underdeveloped characters - a sure formula for me to lose interest.

The plot was complicated, and the characters were not the deepest I've ever seen, but they were as deep as they needed to be for pulp fiction. And before too long, their stories started to intersect.

I did enjoy the way in which everyone, except the villains, just took it as a basic truth that mechanical people were people just like biological people, and that no right-thinking person would deny them equal rights. There are a large number of good people in this book, and they cooperate very well. Even the Priests of the Spider God have their code of honour. The outright villains are an engineer who wants everything to be tidy, and two small children.

I'm a difficult audience for comedy, and not easily amused, but I was amused by this. Recommended.

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Sunday, 2 April 2017

Review: A Tyranny of Queens

A Tyranny of Queens A Tyranny of Queens by Foz Meadows
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A book of numerous flaws, but with strengths that, for me, outweighed them.

As with the first book, there's a whole lot of coincidence driving the plot, including separate people in different worlds repeatedly figuring out the same thing at the same time for different reasons. The author goes so far as to lampshade this abundance of helpful coincidence at one point, through the mouth of the central character, who comes very close to being what I call a "spoiled protagonist" - handed what she needs when she needs it. I say that she comes close, because she also has a rough time of it. Ultimately, though, she (and most of the other characters) lack agency at key moments of the plot.

This may be a deliberate choice, like a lot of the issues. Another problem with the book is that it does read a bit like it's filling a diversity bingo card, rather than exploring any issue of diversity in any depth. I heard an interview with the author on the Skiffy and Fanty podcast, and she mentioned that the world was one she'd started building when she was around the age of the main character (mid-teens); this may be why it seems a bit like wish-fulfillment at times; why the backstory to the matriarchal society turns out to be so banal and unsurprising; and also why the names are often confusing in their similarity. Here's a de-spoilerised sample:

'"...Kadeja," Yena said. She sat at Yasha's bedside, flanked by Sashi and Safi, while Ksa a Kaje watched...'

I read the first book in the middle of last year, and I couldn't remember enough of the it to make head or tail of the political bits for a long time. I did what I usually do in this situation: let them wash over me and kept reading until I got back to something more interesting. Ultimately, the political maneuverings were background to the real story in any case.

The real story - or the one that felt real to me - was the story of Saffron, the teenager from our world's Australia (though it's never clarified in this volume that it's Australia, and that will confuse some readers). She's returned, maimed, from her difficult experiences in book 1 to her home, and nobody understands what she's gone through, and she can't tell them. She hasn't thought about her best friend much - the best friend seems to exist mainly because someone like Saffron would have one, not because she contributes much of anything - but she makes a new friend, who helps her escape the life that's now alien and intolerable to her, and then vanishes from the plot. Saffron and Yena, the transgender girl who she developed a tentative attraction to in the first book, have parallel plotlines for a long time, in different worlds, not really thinking about each other much (and certainly not with any kind of longing); they then, when they meet, fall into a passionate embrace and suddenly have a fully formed relationship. It's kind of like a romance, except with most of the beats removed, and, like other aspects of the plot, felt unearned and undeveloped.

Despite all these flaws, and the overuse of the metaphor of a heart "rabbiting" in someone's chest, I did enjoy this book - at least the Saffron parts, and to a lesser extent the Yena parts. That was because they were passionate about things and pursued them with determination, even if they sometimes lacked agency despite their best efforts, and at other times were handed solutions without working for them. I felt for them in their difficult situations, and that constitutes the book's success, for me.

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Sunday, 26 March 2017

Review: Other Worlds Than These

Other Worlds Than These Other Worlds Than These by John Joseph Adams
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

John Joseph Adams' taste in stories and mine don't always coincide, but when I saw this on $1.99 sale and checked the authors in the table of contents, I thought there would probably be enough stories I enjoyed to make it worth buying. I was pleasantly surprised to end up enjoying almost all of them.

I've always liked portal fantasy, which is coming back into vogue again (after a break while everyone sorted out the whole colonialist aspect). I also enjoy, to a lesser extent, alternate-worlds stories. This volume collects both types and intermixes them.

A word about the copy editing before I start in on the individual stories. I know that some authors, even well-known ones, make a lot of errors and are therefore hard to copy edit, but this particular copy editor seems to have a couple of mistaken beliefs. One is that "two hundred" requires a hyphen, and another is that "a few days' R&R" doesn't require an apostrophe. There are other missing apostrophes, comma splices, "Ok" when it should be either "OK" or "okay," an uncaught inconsistency in one story between "Life-giver" and "Light-giver," "peeling" as a homonym error for "pealing," "the Mura's front lawn" when Mura is the name of the family and it should be "Muras'," "however" and "whatever" each written as two words, some missing question marks, and numerous other little errors (missing punctuation, mostly). Then there are couple of sentences of dialog that have been rephrased, but the following sentence of dialog is still replying to the original phrasing, and now makes no sense. It's a poor standard for what should be an impeccable book, given the reputation of the (acquiring) editor and the authors.

Leaving all of that aside, how were the stories? They were, mostly, excellent. I'll briefly summarize and comment, and rate them out of ten.

"Moon Six," Stephen Baxter (7/10): alternate-world SF around the moon landings. A downer ending, in part because, in keeping with the hard-SF tradition, the protagonist is mostly an observer of significant events rather than someone who makes a difference to them.

"A Brief Guide to Other Histories," Paul McAuley (7/10): a parable of occupied Iraq, but it's one version of America occupied by another. About as dark as you'd expect.

"Crystal Halloway and the Forgotten Passage," Seanan McGuire (7/10): portal fantasy, with a Chosen One from our world battling to balance her two lives. Downer ending.

"An Empty House with Many Doors," Michael Swanwick: no rating, because I skipped this one, reading only far enough to confirm that it was Swanwick's usual depressing nihilism.

"Twenty-Two Centimeters," Gregory Benford (7/10): a first-contact alternate-Earth story, with an Earth so alternate it might as well just be any alien planet.

"Ana's Tag," William Alexander (8/10): a strong sense of place (impoverished rural America) in this tale, where the alternate world is the fae realm.

"Nothing Personal," Pat Cadigan (6/10): I found this slow-moving; it took a long time to get anywhere, and when it got there the destination wasn't, perhaps, completely worth the trip.

"The Rose Wall," Joyce Carol Oates (6/10): an inconclusive ending made this feel like the beginning of a story rather than a complete story. Well told, but I found it unsatisfying.

"The Thirteen Texts of Arthyria," John R. Fultz (7/10): reminiscent of sword-and-sorcery and at the same time of the odder kind of portal fantasy (I'm thinking of Eddison, though it isn't quite as strange as that, and fortunately lacks the ultraviolet prose).

"Ruminations in an Alien Tongue," Vandana Singh (7/10): a sense of age and decrepitude haunts this story, which moves back and forth in time and builds up a picture of an interesting life.

"Ten Sigmas," Paul Melko (8/10): I enjoyed the first of this author's alternate-worlds novels, and this story was just as good: a person with multiple selves who can communicate across their alternate worlds decides to intervene, at personal cost, to rescue someone.

"Magic for Beginners," Kelly Link (7/10): I've only read one other Kelly Link story that I recall, and that one was less of a story than a series of events, carefully depicted, which eventually just stopped. This is the same, but unlike the other story it's amusing rather than depressing. It has, for me, a tenuous connection to the theme of the book, but the connection is there.

"[a ghost samba]," Ian McDonald (6/10): tries perhaps a bit too hard to be very, very Brazilian. The story itself, under the layers of cultural reference, is simple, and I didn't find it particularly appealing.

"The Cristobal Effect," Simon McCaffery (7/10): a traveler across alternate worlds prevents the death of James Dean, which doesn't work out especially well for anyone.

"Beyond Porch and Portal," E. Catherine Tobler (7/10): springboards off the odd circumstances surrounding the death of Edgar Allen Poe, in a story which has resonance with his but isn't really a Poe kind of story. In mostly a good way.

"Signal to Noise," Alastair Reynolds (8/10): a poignant tale of a man given the chance to spend a last week with an alternate version of his wife, who has just died in an accident.

"Porridge on Islac," Ursula K. Le Guin (7/10): I'd read this before in the author's collected stories. It is, of course (given who wrote it), a strongly human story about lives in unusual circumstances.

"Mrs. Todd's Shortcut," Stephen King (8/10): I'd read this one elsewhere also, but re-read it because I remembered it being enjoyable. It still was. Reminded me of Roger Zelazny's "hellrides".

"The Ontological Factor," David Barr Kirtley (7/10): an unpromising title, but not a bad portal fantasy. Avoids the colonialist issues of the genre by positing that our reality is kind of average in its degree of realness, rather than being superior.

"Dear Annabehls," Mercurio D. Rivera (7/10): an amusing piece in which alternate versions of an advice columnist give advice on coping with a situation where people can move freely between alternate worlds.

"The Goat Variations," Jeff Vandermeer (7/10): the master of weird produces a thought-provoking riff on George W. Bush's seven-minute delay on September 11, 2001, in the elementary school where he was reading the kids a story about a goat.

"The Lonely Songs of Laren Dorr," George R.R. Martin (7/10): Martin's stuff is usually too dark and nihilistic for my taste, but this one is more poignant than depressing. Reminiscent of Fritz Lieber.

"Of Swords and Horses," Carrie Vaughn (7/10): I sometimes like Vaughn's stories more than this. It's from the point of view of the mother of the Chosen One who vanishes into the other world, and, while strong and realistic, it has the drawback of focusing on the person who isn't having the adventures.

"Impossible Dreams," Tim Pratt (8/10): a rather sweet story about a film buff who discovers that alternate movies are not the best thing he can find in a mysterious video shop from an alternate world.

"Like Minds," Robert Reed (6/10): somewhat rambling and ultimately despairing, with moments of cruelty.

"The City of Blind Delight," Catherynne M. Valente (6/10): like her first name, Valente's stuff is consistently overwritten and overornamented for my taste, but sometimes manages to end up with a decent story half-visible through the fluff. This is not one of those times.

"Flower, Mercy, Needle, Chain," Yoon Ha Lee (7/10): I think I've read this, or another part of the same story, before; it has very much the feel of being part of a longer story, and is a well-thought-out exploration of an unusual variation on the alternate-world idea.

"Angles," Orson Scott Card (7/10): no lack of storyness here, though I was surprised to see such an experienced writer come out with "said Moshe nastily" rather than something stronger that dispensed with the adverb.

"The Magician and the Maid and Other Stories," Christie Yant (7/10): I anticipated the twist quite early, but not a bad story for all that.

"Trips," Robert Silverberg (7/10): an exploration more than a story, with Silverberg's characteristic obsession with sex, but, of course, well told.

Overall, my ratings average out to about 7/10; there were, for me, no truly earthshaking stories, but most of them I liked at least a little, and some quite a lot. And there are certainly plenty of them.

A good and varied exploration of the collection's theme.

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Review: The Dragon Slayer's Son

The Dragon Slayer's Son The Dragon Slayer's Son by Robinne Weiss
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I found this YA/MG story fresh and well executed. The New Zealand setting was well conveyed - not only the landscape, but cultural references, and the generally cooperative and helpful vibe among the characters. Not that there weren't antagonists - there definitely were, and there was conflict and tension, and conflict even within the team at times - but the general feeling was that any new person you met was more likely to be friendly and helpful than not. Also, the main character wasn't ever formally appointed as the leader, and for a long time the group didn't appear to have (or need) a leader, making decisions by informal consensus. This is very much Kiwi culture.

I appreciated that the kids, even the boys, didn't feel the need to be emotionless and staunch, and that the losses they'd all suffered were treated realistically and shown to matter. The central group were well drawn, clearly distinct from one another, and all brought important contributions to the table; all of them stepped up when needed, even whiny Ella. I also appreciated that there were two girls in the core team, who were very different from one another, and two people of non-European ancestry.

The kids were believable as kids, and the actions they took were also believable as things (unusually heroic and sensible) kids could and would do.

There were a couple of big challenges to my suspension of disbelief, but I don't know if they'd bother the main target audience of middle-grade readers. Firstly, that the existence of dragons up to 30 metres long has been successfully hidden up to the present day, and secondly, that dragon-slayers only get trained once their parents die (and are sent to training as soon as their dragon-slayer parent dies). The latter seemed to be in there not because it made any sense as a rule in itself, but simply to set up the scenario of the dragon-slayer school and the characters being sent there. But everything else was so well done and flowed so well that I was willing to overlook that one.

The ecological thread is strong and clear without being preachy. Overall, highly recommended.

I received a copy of this book for review through the SpecFicNZ review programme.

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