Monday, 15 August 2016

Review: Cold-Forged Flame

Cold-Forged Flame Cold-Forged Flame by Marie Brennan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I much enjoyed this author's A Natural History of Dragons, which some people found dull. This is not dull. It's a fast-moving novella with plenty of action and conflict.

The plot is straightforward and doesn't break new ground (fetch quest with obstacles to overcome), and it begins with amnesia. Neither of these things are promising on the face of it. Main-character amnesia, in particular, is a cliche start, and is sometimes an inexperienced author's way of dealing with the fact that they don't know who their character is either. In the hands of an experienced author like this one, though (or like Roger Zelazny, who pulled it off wonderfully in Nine Princes in Amber), it can work, and here it did, for me.

Even though none of the individual elements shows us anything new, they're executed so well that I still enjoyed it. In particular, I liked the defiant punk-rock attitude of the main character, which elevated her from an amnesiac blank slate/standard-issue kickass warrior chick to someone I wanted to cheer for. When faced with decisions, she considers carefully and chooses well and bravely, for clear reasons.

Overall, then, proof that you don't have to innovate to craft an enjoyable story, though I would have preferred more innovation, on the whole.

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Review: Spirit's End

Spirit's End Spirit's End by Rachel Aaron
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've complained in previous reviews of books in this series about the sudden left turn it took in (I think) Book 3, where the fun, exuberant heists and cons were abruptly converted into serious epic fantasy with cosmic stakes. I'm still annoyed by that. It's a good serious epic fantasy with cosmic stakes, but I didn't originally pick it up as that; I wanted fun heists.

Anyway, in this book, the serious epic fantasy with cosmic stakes comes to a great conclusion, well worth staying around for - and well worth pressing through the first part of the book, which, for me, felt less engaging than it eventually became later on. I think this was partly because it's been a long pause for me between Book 4 and Book 5, entirely because of the publisher's pricing policy (I was waiting for it to come down into the range that I'm prepared to pay for an ebook), and it took me a while to remember who all the characters were and their backstory.

One reason that I wasn't prepared to pay more for a trad-pub ebook is that these particular books aren't actually better edited than many indies (in fact, aren't as well edited as a lot of indies). There's nothing truly awful, but the author apparently doesn't know the coordinate comma rule, especially as applied to numbers, and either the editor doesn't know it either or has missed a great many. Likewise with homonyms (flare/flair, sometime/some time, sheaf/sheet, harrier/hairier, shown/shone, lest/unless, breaking/braking, principals/principles, leached/leeched - those last two are often hard to distinguish, but in this case it clearly should be "leeched"). The Restricted Archives become the Restrictive Archives two sentences later, and there are a few apostrophe errors, mostly with plurals. "Millennia" is used as the singular. I've seen far worse, but I've also seen a lot better, and would expect more from Orbit/Hachette.

However, those occasional issues, and my lingering annoyance at the genre switch-up, didn't prevent me from thoroughly enjoying the last part of the book. I was lucky enough to have leisure to read it at one sitting, which is exactly the way to read it. It takes the determination of the characters that's been established previously and shows them using that determination, and their various abilities (including, happily, Eli's cunning as a con-man) to resolve an apparently unresolvable and increasingly desperate situation. These are people who will do the right thing at any cost, which is the kind of character I like to read about; they're also ingenious, committed to one another, and prepared to set aside their personal conflicts for the greater good.

My overall verdict on the series is that, despite its disorienting shift of tone partway through and the less-than-fully-polished editing, it's thoroughly enjoyable and well worth reading.

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Thursday, 11 August 2016

Review: Ancillary Mercy

Ancillary Mercy Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It's hard to measure up to the amazing first book of this series, mainly because, in the sequels, the things that made the first one astonishing are no longer completely new. Still, it continues to be wonderful, doing extremely clever things with point of view that are only possible because of the speculative setting.

Something I didn't feel as much in this third book is the deliberately induced cognitive dissonance of the Raadchai language only using female pronouns, and not considering gender as a significant category in social interaction. I'm not sure whether this was a function of familiarity and adaptation on my part, or a difference in the writing, or a combination, but I found that I'd defaulted to assuming everyone was male, despite the pronouns - not ideal, but that's how my brain seems to have worked. YMMV.

The story itself is one of those beautifully layered, in some ways slow-moving stories that doesn't feel the need to insert conflict into every scene. There is certainly conflict, but this is far from being a thriller. I'm personally comfortable with that, but it won't be to everyone's taste; if it's not to your taste, though, you will have given up on the first book without ever getting near this one.

The book is structured more by an unfolding of meaning than by a traditional plot, too. Events occur and are linked together; you could write down a plot summary; but the real structure (IMO) is the emergence of theme, and the theme centres around independence, interdependence, love, trust, and power. Power has been a theme throughout the trilogy, and here the questions are made explicit: Do you hand power to the person who has demonstrated that they are only interested in how you can be useful to them, or to the person who has demonstrated that they are always interested in your wellbeing? (And what is a person, exactly?) This is shown not only through the main plot, but also a couple of subplots.

It's a good theme, and well handled, and beautifully told, with depth and richness and a lot of intelligence. I'm going to give it the full five stars, even though it's not as amazing as the first book, because if I had encountered a book this good as a standalone I would have five-starred it.

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Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Review: Unidentified Funny Objects 5

Unidentified Funny Objects 5 Unidentified Funny Objects 5 by Alex Shvartsman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have a difficult relationship with funny SFF. As a Commonwealth citizen, I have more of a British than an American sense of humour, and a lot of "funny" SFF isn't necessarily as funny to me as it is to other people. Yet I always want to see more of it in the world.

I also believe that humorous stories should work as stories, even for someone who doesn't find them funny, and that doing some easy mockery of common tropes with a few silly names thrown in is not nearly enough. At the same time, I'm willing to excuse a few weaknesses in a story if it makes me laugh.

This collection runs the gamut, for me, from a few stories I felt didn't work especially well to a number of others that I enjoyed a good deal. I'll go through them one at a time, and give each one its own rating out of 10 and brief commentary. I'm well aware of how subjective humour is, and no doubt the stories which didn't work for me will be someone else's favourites, and vice versa.

7/10 "My Enemy, the Unicorn" (Bill Ferris): cryptids in captivity scheming among themselves and against each other. Twisty enough to be enjoyable for that reason, and also with a trickster protagonist, which is generally a plus for me.

6/10 "The Trouble With Hairy" (David Gerrold): exhibits a fault that I've seen a few times in comedic SFF, which is that it's almost entirely in "tell" mode. There's very little dialog, and while there are some named characters, we're told rather than shown what they do. The story itself, about a "solution" to LA's traffic woes, is absurd, but in mostly a good way, and enjoyably told; but "told" is exactly what it is, and that loses it some points.

7/10 "B.U.M.P. in the Knight" (Esther Friesner): Friesner is one of my favourite American SFF humourists. Her stories mostly play with the tropes, but she does it very well, and this is no exception; princesses and dragons scheme against knights, and come up with a clever solution to a pressing problem.

8/10 "If I Could Give This Time Machine Zero Stars, I Would" (James Wesley Rogers): simultaneously a clever time travel story and an effective parody of online consumer reviews. Either one of those elements could easily have failed (I've seen both done poorly), but in this story, neither one did.

5/10 "The Pi Files" (Laura Resnick): for me, Laura Resnick's pieces can tend to be a bit too much playing with tropes and silly names, and not quite enough fresh, effective story, and this is an example. Trying to cram the X-Files, Doctor Who, Star Wars, Star Trek, 2001, and, for some reason, Casablanca all into one story was probably too much, and left all of the elements underdeveloped. A bit reminiscent of Mad Magazine, because of the silly names, and I never did find that style funny.

8/10 "Prophet Margins" (Zach Shephard): this is an example of a story that works as a story first, and is secondarily funny, and none the worse for that. It's relatively fresh, with worldbuilding I hadn't seen before (different methods of predicting the future), and also charming. The terrible jokes that one of the characters tells are truly awful, but they're supposed to be.

7/10 "The Deliverable" (Shaenon K. Garrity): told in emails, this story parodies startup culture and the multiplication of coffee shops in the San Francisco Bay Area. Parodies of a current phenomenon can easily go sideways, as can the epistolary style, but this one is well executed, bringing out distinct characters who are both individuals and recognisable types, and telling an apocalyptic story in the process. Perhaps had one or two more characters than it strictly needed, because I found myself losing track of them at one point.

7/10 "The Mayoral Stakes" (Mike Resnick): a Runyonesque, one of my personal favourite story styles, with the same main character as the author's story in the Funny Fantasy anthology I reviewed not long ago. I didn't feel that this story was quite as good as that one, somehow; it perhaps would have benefited from a reduction in characters and a bit of streamlining in the first third, but it's still an enjoyable tale of betting on, and manipulating, New York mayoral elections.

6/10 "Rude Mechanicals" (Jody Lynn Nye): works both as a police-procedural murder mystery and an SF story involving aliens and AIs. However, I didn't find it outstandingly funny, and the style was somehow flat for me.

7/10 "Kaylee the Huntress" (Tim Pratt): the thoroughly dislikable protagonist (a spoiled "mean girl" type) lowers the mark I'm giving this one. It's a clever premise - she accidentally becomes a supernatural huntress and has to deal with the consequences - and well written, but I just disliked her so much. Which I was supposed to, but still.

5/10: "Best Chef Season Three: Tau Ceti E" (Caroline M. Yoachim): one kind of "funny" story I tend to dislike is one in which terrible things happen but the tone is kept light, never acknowledging the horror in the slightest. This is one such. That conflict between dark deeds and a light tone just isn't a thing I enjoy much. Other stories in this book have dark deeds, but manage to work for me because they give at least some acknowledgement to how people would really feel about them. The premise of a cooking reality show run by aliens is a fairly obvious one, too, and I didn't feel that the author took it anywhere truly creative.

8/10: "Won't You Please Give One of These Species-Planets a Second Chance?" (Nathan Hillstrom): an amusing mashup of two ideas, "powerful aliens rescue/threaten Earth" and "shelter pet adoption". The teenager who knows how to manipulate people into adopting pets is wonderful.

7/10: "Fantastic Coverage" (Mitchell Shanklin): something that "funny fantasy" anthologies tend to get a lot of is parodies of aspects, especially frustrating aspects, of contemporary life with a tropish science-fictional or fantastic overlay, and here we have an insurance claims agent whose job is to find loopholes and deny payouts in cases of fantastical disaster. It could easily be weak, but it's well executed and has a fun twist at the end.

7/10: "Mistaken Identity" (Daniel J. Davis): what it's like to be mistakenly targeted by a costumed vigilante. The comedy of errors for the hapless protagonist escalates amusingly.

7/10: "Customer Service Hobgoblin" (Paul R. Hardy): one of the commonest topics for funny fantasy stories is the supernatural helpline, and it's a story idea that is pretty well mined out by this point. Not completely, though, as this story proves, with its trickster protagonist and twisty plot.

6/10: "The Lesser of Two Evils" (Shane Halbach): likewise, the "IT is really magic/demons" idea must be close to getting its retirement gift, giant novelty card and generic congratulatory message from the CEO by now. This story doesn't take it in any startlingly new direction, though it's well enough executed.

7/10: "Appointment at Titlanitza" (Fred Stesney): noir detective with a Mexican setting and an ancient aliens theme. Some absurd moments amused me, which boosted the rating.

5/10: "The Problem with Poofs" (Gini Koch): to me, this stumbled, mostly because unnecessarily large numbers of characters were introduced in batches, meaning that by the time they did anything I'd forgotten which character went with which name. Also, I didn't find it especially funny. The title is an obvious reference to the Star Trek episode "The Trouble with Tribbles," - and, indeed, a lot of the story feels generically Trekkish - but the tribble-like poofs of the title are never actually a problem, only a solution. Otherwise, it's a fairly standard story of human exceptionalism among alien races (which are all unimaginatively based on Earth creatures), with not enough to the plot to rescue it from its other faults. A disappointing close to what was, on average, a good collection.

Disclosures: I received a review copy from the editor, who is an online acquaintance. I also submitted stories to this anthology, and previous UFO anthologies, unsuccessfully.

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Monday, 25 July 2016

Review: Monstrous Little Voices: New Tales from Shakespeare's Fantasy World

Monstrous Little Voices: New Tales from Shakespeare's Fantasy World Monstrous Little Voices: New Tales from Shakespeare's Fantasy World by Jonathan Barnes
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I received a review copy of this book from one of the authors (Kate Heartfield), because we are members of the same writers' community.

Shakespeare can legitimately be considered one of the early English fantasists, based on A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Tempest, Macbeth, Hamlet, and bits and pieces in a few of the other plays, so the idea of a book which takes his fantastica and creates new stories appealed to me. It's been done before, of course, in various ways, and will be done again, with various degrees of success. This one distributes the story between several different authors, and I was keen to see how they handled it.

I assumed, going in, that it would be more or less a themed anthology, but it's more than that; the stories interlink and form an overall narrative. Unfortunately (in my opinion) it becomes more and more meta, literary, and, to me, pretentious as it goes along, until we're in second person present tense, breaking the fourth wall left and right in a full-on metafictional multiverse.

It doesn't start out that way, though. It starts out with Foz Meadows' "Coral Bones," which begins some time after The Tempest finishes and questions whether Miranda would really be happy with Ferdinand (who was, after all, basically the first man she ever met, if you don't count Caliban or her father). It's well written, well edited, and does a good job of building on the original story. It has an explicit five-act structure, and, of course, refers to several Shakespeare plays as source material (the fairies from A Midsummer Night's Dream play crucial roles; in this version of the setting, the faerie courts are openly known to the mortal world and interact with mortal courts), but that's as close to the plays as it gets. It's a short story, and a good one, which brings the themes bang up to date and doesn't try to be anything else.

Kate Heartfield is next, with "The Course of True Love". Here we have a witch, a faerie changeling, Duke Orsino (from Twelfth Night), and Queen Mab, as well as Titania and Oberon. It's becoming clear that the stories are linked, at least by sharing a setting. The main characters of this story don't recur later in the book, but it does advance the metaplot somewhat. It's a rather charming romance between older people, though for me it wrapped up a little too neatly. Again, it's presented in five acts, and again, it's well edited.

Emma Newman's "The Unkindest Cut" had a few minor faults. One was trying too hard to shoehorn in Shakespearian references; there were also a few places where words were used oddly, and the occasional comma splice. The story was strong, though, a tragedy of manipulation and murder in the clear spirit of Shakespeare (as well as involving several of his characters). Unlike the preceding stories and the one that follows, it isn't split up into five acts.

Adrian Tchaikovsky's "Even In the Cannon's Mouth" brings us characters from several other plays (As You Like It being one), caught up in the war that's been referenced also in the first three stories. Each scene opens with the kind of scene-setting that you get at the beginning of a Shakespearian scene, including the stage direction "Enter" and whichever character or characters start off the scene. The characters are vivid, their interaction well handled, and the writing rich and competent, but there's the occasional typo or slight homonym error ("bad" for "bade" twice, "institute" for "institution," "sheath" for "sheathe"). In Act Five, the fourth wall is broken, and we get our first taste of second person and our first indication of the metafictional multiverse. This is where, for me, the book started to go sideways.

Finally, we have Jonathan Barnes' "On the Twelfth Night," which has nothing really to do with the play Twelfth Night, but is set around the twelve days (or nights) of Christmas, 1601. It involves Shakespeare's family, and is (for the first eleven nights) told in second person, present tense, as if addressing Anne, Shakespeare's wife. I was unsurprised to learn, in the back matter, that Barnes writes for the Times Literary Supplement and the Literary Review and is a writer-in-residence at a university; the whole thing is very literary, in a way I personally don't care for much. It does remain spec-fic, in that the metafictional multiverse is at the heart of the story, though it goes through a lot of atmospheric setting-up to get there. It misuses the word "catechism" to mean "prayer," misplaces some commas, and uses "hove" as if it were the present tense (which should be "heave"), but otherwise reads smoothly enough.

As you may have detected, I enjoyed each story in the book slightly less than its predecessor, and if I was just going by the last one I'd consider three stars, though I'd probably settle on four; it's competently done, for the most part, though not the kind of thing I love. The standard starts out high, however, and the decline is gradual until we hit the final story. Speaking for myself, I would have preferred a sequence of stories like Foz Meadows' one, which didn't try too hard and just extrapolated and expanded on the source material in an entertaining and thought-provoking way, keeping firmly within the fiction. That's just my taste, though, and yours may well differ.

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Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Review: Masterpieces of Fantasy and Wonder

Masterpieces of Fantasy and Wonder Masterpieces of Fantasy and Wonder by David G. Hartwell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I complained of this book's predecessor, Masterpieces of Fantasy and Enchantment, that some of the stories, far from being masterpieces, had been rescued from well-deserved obscurity. I didn't have the same reaction to this volume, though, even though the same editor had taken a similar approach: combine well-known genre classics with long-out-of-print pieces by famous authors, some of whom aren't usually thought of as belonging to the SFF field.

At the same time I bought those two books, I also bought The Fantasy Hall of Fame, and there's a considerable overlap in contents. This volume shares Margaret St. Clair's "The Man Who Sold Rope to the Gnolls," J.G. Ballard's "The Drowned Giant," and R.A. Lafferty's "Narrow Valley" with the Hall of Fame volume, none of which, to be honest, were among my favourites in either book; the Hall of Fame shares with the first volume "Our Fair City" (Heinlein), "The Silken-Swift" (Sturgeon), "The Detective of Dreams" (Wolfe), and "Operation Afreet" (Anderson).

I'd also previously read some others in this volume: Peter S. Beagle's "Lila the Werewolf," a typical Beagle piece in its beauty, its depiction of people trapped in their stereotypes, and its tragic arc; Anne McCaffrey's "A Proper Santa Claus," a powerful story about the crushing of childhood creativity and wonder; and James Tiptree, Jr.'s "Beyond the Dead Reef," which, slightly unusually for that author, focusses more on ecological disaster than on gender role disaster.

There are, however, plenty of pieces that are new to me, many of which I enjoyed. John M. Ford's "Green is the Color," which opens the book, is a lovely human story filled with magic and wonder. So is Robin McKinley's version of "The Princess and the Frog". Patricia A. McKillip's "The Harrowing of the Dragon of Hoarsbreath" is magnificent and unexpected, as you'd expect from her if you've read much of her work. John Brunner's "The Things That Are Gods" is a hearty bit of sword-and-sorcery with some depth to it. I also enjoyed Osbert Sitwell's version of "Jack and the Beanstalk," something that you'll not see reprinted in many places, I suspect.

Other pieces I wasn't so keen on. I've always disliked Jack Vance, whose characters use stilted dialog to convey their utter lack of any admirable qualities, and the samples in this book don't change my mind. Isaac Bashevis Singer's "The Parrot," as well as being not to my taste, had, I felt, limited claim to be in a book about "fantasy and wonder," since the fantastical element could well have been in the mind of one character. Although Graham Greene's "Under the Garden" has the same ambiguity about whether anything fantastical has actually occurred, I enjoyed it more as a story.

There are rescued treasures as well, though, from Charles Dickens ("Prince Bull," a political satire), W.S. Gilbert ("The Triumph of Vice"), J.M. Barrie (the original "Peter Pan" story, which I seem to somehow have never read, though I've read Peter Pan and Wendy many times), Mark Twain ("The Facts Concerning the Recent Carnival of Crime in Connecticut," a fine satire on the value of a conscience), Frank R. Stockton ("The Griffon and the Minor Canon," which I'd read in his own collection, though I suspect few other people have), George MacDonald ("The Gray Wolf," an early, and unusual, werewolf story), L. Frank Baum ("The Enchanted Buffalo," a blend of Western tall tale and native legend), E.T.A. Hoffmann ("The King's Bride," a quirky wonder story), Fitz-James O'Brien ("The King of Nodland and His Dwarf," another political satire with a strong anti-slavery message, by an author who died in the American Civil War), and William Morris ("The Hollow Land," a pseudomedieval tale so authentic that I felt I needed scholarly notes to explain it to me).

In the first book, I felt that the editor had compiled an odd mix of often-collected 20th-century SFF stories with deservedly obscure earlier works, and that it didn't really come together into an interesting collection. Here, I felt he was much more successful, and that the stories were better chosen.

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Monday, 18 July 2016

Review: Hunt for Valamon

Hunt for Valamon Hunt for Valamon by D.K. Mok
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I became aware of D.K. Mok's work when we both had stories in the Terry Pratchett tribute anthology In Memory: A Tribute to Sir Terry Pratchett . I enjoyed her story in that book, and bought this book in consequence.

It reminds me, in many ways, of a Terry Pratchett story. We have not one, but two earnest, rather hapless young men with burning ideals about how the world should be, who struggle and sacrifice and are willing to pay any price to make it that way, because they care very deeply. We have several capable, no-nonsense young women who eventually come round to the young men's way of thinking, and provide necessary ingredients of the solution. We have some dark moments, but also some very funny moments, mostly either "hapless young man is hapless" or else clever play with language. The plot is exciting, suspenseful, and far from predictable. Every so often we have a beautifully phrased philosophical statement like "People only knew what they wanted, not what was important. That's why things didn't work." The editing is excellent, and I don't say that often or lightly.

There is one way in which I felt the book could have been improved, and it's an issue that this kind of book is vulnerable to. There are a lot of fairly generic minor characters, and I had trouble, when one showed up again after an interval, remembering who they were or anything else about them. The main characters were OK; we saw enough of them, and they had enough things that they wanted and enough distinctive attributes, that they were easy to remember and tell apart. The minor characters, though, needed to stand out from the background a bit more clearly, even if it was just through a couple of initial descriptive tags that could be mentioned again when they reappeared (the Roger Zelazny method).

Apart from that, I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and will be looking out for more from D.K. Mok.

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