Friday, 26 April 2019

Review: The Clockwork Detective

The Clockwork Detective The Clockwork Detective by R.A. McCandless
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoy a young female protagonist, and even though this particular young female protagonist might as well be a man for most purposes, she's determined, competent, perceptive, and an excellent negotiator who thinks well in a dangerous situation - things we're shown rather than told, to the author's credit.

There's a mystery plot, which played out well, but also an underlying political plot which is part of a larger series arc. There are tense confrontations and powerful moments of action and magic.

The setting is steampunk, but with a strong magical component from the Fae; there's the usual lighter-than-hydrogen gas for the airships, clockwork where clockwork doesn't necessarily make a lot of sense (in a prosthetic leg), and the rest of the steampunk trappings that you just have to take a deep breath and swallow.

The protagonist serves a somewhat corrupt and potentially dystopian empire, something that I hope will lead to more conflicts later in the series.

I read a pre-release copy from Netgalley, which needed an awful lot of copy editing work, even more than average for steampunk (which is typically a lot); I hope it gets it, though inevitably even a really good copy editor will still miss things. For an author who boasts of two decades of experience and a degree in communication and creative writing, the punctuation, grammar, and vocabulary errors are extraordinarily numerous.

Leaving that aside, I enjoyed it as a story, and would consider reading another in the series, though I'd probably want to read it after it had been thoroughly edited rather than before.

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Saturday, 6 April 2019

Review: Ricochet

Ricochet Ricochet by Kathryn Berla
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Unusual, in that it's told from the viewpoints of four different versions of one 17-year-old girl, living in alternate realities.

Two are living in America, with loving adoptive parents. Tati has a pretty idyllic life, apart from the fact that she has random and medically inexplicable seizures. Ana doesn't have it quite so good, but her life is OK. She has the seizures too.

So does Tanya, who escaped from Russia with her increasingly mentally unstable mother, and isn't allowed to leave their run-down house. And so does Tatiana, who lives in luxury with her scientist father and aunt in her native Moscow.

When the girls begin to cross between worlds, it sets off a suspenseful sequence of events in each of the realities, and nothing will ever be the same again for any of them.

I was enjoying this up until the ending, which I felt short-changed most of the characters - especially the ones that had been most protagonistic. But it wasn't so disappointing as to drop a star, and for other readers it may work better than it did for me.

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Review: Royal Rescue

Royal Rescue Royal Rescue by A. Alex Logan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I try to read a few books each year with protagonists whose experience of life is very different from mine as a middle-aged straight white man. This one has an asexual protagonist, which is an experience of life I knew very little about going in. I enjoyed it as a well-written story, and also for what it taught me.

Prince Gerald, the protagonist, is certainly neurotic, in the technical sense of experiencing a lot of negative emotion. That seems like an understandable consequence of having hardly anyone (not even your pretty decent cousin) believe you when you say you don't have any desire for a romantic or sexual relationship, and never will, and being caught up in a system where there's just no place for you.

In Prince Gerald's world, there's peace between nations, and part of the reason is that the old prince-rescues-princess-from-a-tower thing has become institutionalized. It's evolved in some ways; princesses can rescue princes, or rescue other princesses, or princes can rescue other princes, and there are also princexes (nonbinary royals), and nobody turns a hair at any of this. Gerald's parents are both women. But what the system does not allow for is someone who doesn't want to rescue, or be rescued by (and therefore marry) anyone at all; and it's abusive to the tower guardians, to boot, magical or semi-magical creatures who are coerced into their roles and harmed in various ways by the whole process.

Gerald wants to change the system, and with the help of a very supportive and open-minded desert prince; his cousin Erick, who's good with magic; and Erick's rescuee, a take-charge princess from a country where women aren't allowed to be in charge - not to mention the freed dragon who was his tower guardian - he sets out to do so.

It's hard to write a protagonist-changes-abusive-system novel. The whole thing about systems is that they're hard to change, a lot of people don't want them to change for various reasons, and it's not straightforward to find a satisfactory replacement. I did feel that the resolution in this book came a bit more easily than would be likely in real life, and that everyone was more reasonable and open to change than real people tend to be, but as I say, this theme is hard, and it was a pretty good job all told. The copy editing is excellent, especially for a book received from Netgalley in a pre-publication state, and I suspect this should be put down to the author knowing their craft and tools. There was a good depiction of disability, as well.

One thing I did notice was that the female characters right across the board were inclined to arrange other people's lives for them "for their own good" without a lot of consultation, whereas the male characters were a lot more open and accepting and much better listeners. I'm not going to speculate about what in the author's life experience might have led to these differences; I just note them. Also, there was a pronounced absence of personal servants throughout, though the whole point of the rescue system was to make the royals self-reliant, which might explain that.

Despite those couple of minor quibbles, this easily joins my best-of list for 2019. Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for providing a copy for review.

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Review: The View From Castle Always

The View From Castle Always The View From Castle Always by Melissa McShane
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Melissa McShane has been regularly making my Best of the Year list lately, and books like this are why.

The old enchanted castle trope is a good one, and here it's handled well and with some originality. Not only do different parts of the castle look out on different parts of the world (including from different windows in the same room), but the castle's purpose seems to be to give questers their choice of token and then shove them out the exit to meet their destiny.

But Alianthe, who has only come to the castle because the trees of her woodland home have rejected her, is trapped in the castle, and it won't let her leave. It may even be trying to kill her.

Fortunately, she has company: a man who came in, not in quest of anything, but in order to get out of the rain, and who is stubbornly refusing to choose a token, because he doesn't want to be shoved out in some random part of the world to live or die at the whim of fate; he just wants to go home.

Cue slow-burn romance - interrupted when a would-be chivalrous idiot comes questing and refuses to leave without rescuing Alianthe, who is perfectly capable of rescuing herself. Meanwhile, the castle is becoming stranger and more dangerous all the time (but so is Alianthe, rather to her disquiet).

A terrific twist ending; some good-quality reflection on the nature of choice, goodness, and heroism; and a delightful cat all combine with excellent editing and strong writing to take this to five stars, and into a high position on my Best of 2019.

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Review: Captain Marvel

I say in my blog tagline that I review "books and the very occasional movie". The movie reviews have been extremely occasional, and will probably continue to be, for a few reasons.

Firstly, I don't watch all that many movies.

Secondly, the movies I do watch are pretty much all popular ones that thousands of other people are going to review, and that generally don't have a great many depths to explore. These are the movies I like; I won't pretend otherwise.

And thirdly, I don't feel I have the same insight into the movie genre as I do into written fiction. I write fiction; I haven't, and probably never will, come anywhere close to writing a screenplay. (Though if anyone knows Taika Waititi, I have an urban fantasy novel series set in Auckland I'd like to discuss with him...)

Anyway, with those disclaimers made, I saw Captain Marvel the other day, and enjoyed it. The power was scheduled to be out at our house so that maintenance work could be done on the lines, and we decided going to a movie was the obvious play.

What interested me about Captain Marvel was that it's a kind of movie that wouldn't have been made just a few years ago. It's a superhero action-adventure, but with a woman protagonist who hasn't been raped, doesn't have a love interest anywhere in sight, has a close female friend, a female mentor... This is not how Hollywood used to make its movies. There was a maximum of one major female character, and she did not have a character arc; she was there for the men, because of course she was.

There are men in the movie. Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) plays the sidekick, and plays him very Watsonly. Jude Law (speaking of Watson) plays the Damn Patriarchy. Most of the rest of the protagonist's initial team are men, except for one other woman who doesn't like her (emphasising her lack of fit in the team); but none of them are really developed much. They're like the dwarves in The Hobbit who aren't Thorin. The title character is the main character, and is also most definitely the protagonist. She's competent, confident, in charge, and taking no crap from anyone. Her undaunted stare alone is worth the price of admission.

I enjoyed the moment when her honorary niece, her best friend's daughter, encourages her mother to go off on the adventure, because if she didn't, "think about what kind of example you'd be setting for your daughter". I have the feeling we are going to see that little girl again in some future Marvel movie.

There's a major plot twist about halfway through that, if you reflect on it at all, is a commentary on current international affairs, but also works really well as a pivotal moment for a character in search of her identity.

And someone was credited at the end as "Cat Trainer". I'm sure that was a difficult job, but the cat scenes were great, whether by the cat trainer's ability or by CGI, who can even tell these days?

So, what were the movie's flaws? Well, the protagonist's powers worked by handwavium and we never did understand exactly how, but that's standard for superhero movies. Once they were inside the secure facility, there was very little evidence of security, but that, too, is standard in the action movie genre. They found the information they needed extremely fast, but searching for clues in real time is boring, and it's an accepted convention that, whether you're looking on a computer or in a set of files, you will find what you need almost instantaneously. So... no criticisms that don't apply to the whole genre and its tropes.

I can't quite bring myself to give five stars to a movie that's light enough that I would watch it, so it gets four. But it's a big four. Definitely five-adjacent.

Saturday, 23 March 2019

Review: Kingdoms of the Cursed: The High and Faraway, Book Two

Kingdoms of the Cursed: The High and Faraway, Book Two Kingdoms of the Cursed: The High and Faraway, Book Two by Greg Keyes
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read the first in the series, and enjoyed it enough that when I saw this one on Netgalley I asked for a copy for review. I did have some hesitations; I felt the first one had pumped the archetypes pedal a bit too hard, at the expense of more subtle character development.

This one doesn't feel as overdone in the archetypes department, but it does feel disjointed to me. This is partly because, rather than being together as they were in most of the first book, the three viewpoint characters spend most of this second book widely separated, having their own adventures, which don't always seem to be particularly directed at a shared goal. Most of the time, they're trying to survive, and/or find each other, but they're also trying to rescue various people, with mixed success. This gives plenty of opportunities to leave one character at a cliffhanger and switch to another, but I sometimes found that by the time the viewpoint switched back I'd forgotten the earlier character's situation - a sign that the plot wasn't coherent and cohesive enough, I think. Several of the key characters who recurred from the earlier book were ones I didn't remember at all, too. The book does open with a rather on-the-nose as-you-know-Bob recap, addressed by one character to her diary, which at least reminded me who these people were and why they were fighting; it could have been done a lot more subtly, but it achieved the purpose.

Aster, the young sorceress, spends a lot of the book confused, lacking in confidence and direction, and, for a while, very vulnerable. Veronica, the semi-undead girl trying not to be a monster, has probably the strongest arc, one that leaves her boyfriend, Errol, the third viewpoint character, rather high and dry by the end. He's... susceptible to damsels in distress, and by the end, Veronica isn't in distress. She has her own thing going on, though it wasn't completely clear to me (maybe even to her) exactly what that is.

Errol... I wasn't quite sure what was going on with him either. He had to find his courage; he certainly found reasons to live (having ended up involved in the adventure indirectly because of a suicide attempt back before the start of Book 1). But the whole thing was so muddied by a lot of wandering about in wonder-filled but inconclusive directions that I spent a lot of the book just waiting for clarity that never really emerged.

This isn't at all a rules-based fantasy universe, by the way. It's more at the mythic end. Parts of the world (multiverse?) are always stuck at particular times of day or night; all the adults are statues, or monsters, or disappeared (though there seems to be a fairly wide latitude in the definition of "adult"); nobody seems to have to eat or engage in agriculture, which is just as well, given that there's no day in some places, no night in others, and weather seems to be just as arbitrary and unvarying. Ships fly for no readily apparent reason and without an obvious mechanism. It's a dreamlike world, reminiscent of Peter Pan's Neverland in many ways, and while that is wonderful in a sensawunda kind of way, it doesn't help with making sense of what is going on.

I will give it four stars, with some slight reluctance, because it is filled with unexpected wonders, but it would be more compelling if the plot was tighter and the characters were more goal-directed.

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Sunday, 17 March 2019

Review: The Smoke-Scented Girl

The Smoke-Scented Girl The Smoke-Scented Girl by Melissa McShane
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I've become a Melissa McShane fan over the past little while. Her books consistently make it into my Best of the Year roundups, because they're well crafted, extremely well edited, and usually feature determined, principled, capable young women as protagonists (my favourite kind of protagonist).

This one is a little different in a few ways. The less important way is that the determined, principled, capable young woman is not the viewpoint character or the protagonist; that's a determined, principled, capable young man who eventually figures out he's in love with her. One of the more important ways in which it's different from other McShane books is that it achieves and sustains a higher level of tension. The slower beginning/action-packed ending pattern is still there, but I didn't notice it as strongly, because from early on we have a motivated protagonist in a dynamic situation, plenty at stake, and lots happening.

The other important difference in this book is that the world feels richer and deeper than in other McShane books I've read. Not that it's bad in those other books, just that this one has some extra touches that make me believe in it. The names, for instance; I pay a lot of attention to character names, and these feel like the author has paid attention to them as well. They don't fall into the trap of familiar biblical names in a world where Christianity doesn't exist; they're made up, but they're made up in a way that makes them both easy to remember and credible. There are repeating patterns to the surnames, for example, suffixes which several surnames have in common - the kind of thing that happens in real life.

The world feels three-dimensional and lived-in, not thrown together out of scenery flats like so many fantasy worlds, but this is achieved by a few subtle touches rather than a series of infodumps. It's broadly similar to, but not simply a version of, Napoleonic-era Britain (a period the author has researched as background for another series), and there's a good balance between elements of similarity and elements of difference. The whole thing feels both authentic and thought through, and given how often I ding books set in the 19th century or its equivalent for missing both of those marks, I appreciate that very much.

The characters are delightful: the brilliant young mage who doubts himself and has trouble getting people to take him seriously because he's so young; the cursed young woman dealing with her fate as best she can, and making a decent job of it; the seemingly foppish friend who is clearly much more competent than he lets on, loyal to the death, and closer than a brother; the petty bureaucrat pigheadedly determined to do the wrong thing; the jealous former teacher who contradicts the wunderkind at every turn; the no-nonsense, experienced older woman who trusts the young people to get it right; even the incidental, nameless characters met along the way have a sense of solidity to them.

These are new heights for an always-entertaining author, and I look forward to reading many more of her books.

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