Saturday, 1 July 2017

Review: The Forgotten Beasts of Eld

The Forgotten Beasts of Eld The Forgotten Beasts of Eld by Patricia A. McKillip
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I thought I'd read this before, but I didn't remember it once I got into it, and I would have remembered a book like this. I think I'd just heard about it so often that I assumed I'd read it, particularly since I love the author's other work.

McKillip writes with a magnificent complexity and depth, in the mythopoeic style championed by Tolkien. Lest we be fooled by the commercial epic fantasy of the 1970s and 1980s into thinking that Tolkien was all about armies and orcs and a quirky mixed group on a quest, this book reminds us that there was another, deeper layer to his work, which few subsequent authors have the skills to emulate. It's poetic, without ever trying too hard for beauty for its own sake; it's mythic, while also being anchored in the reality of human psychology; it's epic, without depicting a single battle on stage (though a battle forms an important part of the backstory).

Love, revenge, betrayal and jealousy weave powerfully through the plot, as do wisdom and self-understanding. (view spoiler)

The central characters are magnificent, grand, and wholehearted. The setting is vivid, rich, and magical. The beasts of the title are worthy to stand beside the great dragons, lions, cats, swans, and boars of myth and legend.

A couple of quotations, to give you the flavour:

"My heart is in your heart. I gave it to you with my name that night and you are its guardian, to treasure it, or let it wither and die. I do not understand you. I am angry with you. I am hurt and helpless, but nothing would fill the ache of the hollowness in me where your name would echo if I lost you."

"I have many people who know my name, but only one or two or three that know who it belongs to."

The wisdom at the heart of this book is that, in caring for others, we come to understand ourselves; and the person who comes to this insight most clearly is not the young boy, but the magically powerful middle-aged woman. It's a landmark work in the fantasy field, and I'm glad it's being reissued in ebook, and that I had the chance to read it through Netgalley for this review.

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Sunday, 14 May 2017

Review: The New Voices of Fantasy

The New Voices of Fantasy The New Voices of Fantasy by Peter S. Beagle
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a collection of stories by authors who have recently hit the upper levels of speculative fiction writing - publication in the top venues, award nominations, and so forth.

I'd read several of these before, mostly in the The Long List Anthology Volume 2: More Stories From the Hugo Award Nomination List; some of them were good enough that I read them again. I skipped Alyssa Wong's "Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers" (which was more horror-like than I prefer), Carmen Maria Machado's "The Husband Stitch", a magic-realist story that didn't have a strong enough payoff for me to want to read it again, and Usman T. Malik's "The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn," which was good but, let's say, took a lot of words for the amount of story in it.

I did re-read Maria Dahvana Headley's "The Tallest Doll in New York City," a lovely Runyonesque that I'd previously read in the anthology, and Max Gladstone's "A Kiss with Teeth", which I'd read twice before in other anthologies. It's that good. His novels are, for me, a frustrating blend of brilliant and flawed, but this story is excellent. Even though a lot of its excellence is in the masterfully maintained tension, and even though I (obviously) already knew the ending, it rewarded rereading.

The other story I re-read was Sofia Samatar's "Selkie Stories Are for Losers", which, the first time I read it, didn't do much for me. I appreciated it more on a re-read; like most of these stories, what it's about is human relationships, and it takes an allusive and indirect approach that, for me, needed a second read to get.

As I write this review, I'm partway through reading Event Horizon 2017, a collection of stories by authors eligible for the Campbell Award - that is, people who've recently made their first professional sale. I'm trying to figure out what the difference is between those stories and the ones in this volume; haven't quite put my finger on it yet, but it's something to do with having a second level to the story, and and extra degree of skill in weaving it together. While I didn't necessarily like every story in this volume, I appreciated the authors' ability.

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Monday, 8 May 2017

Review: The Door in the Hedge

The Door in the Hedge The Door in the Hedge by Robin McKinley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It's Robin McKinley, so it is, of course, beautifully written (with a caveat I'll get to in a moment).

It's in the fairy-tale genre, so you need to be willing to accept that princes and princesses are (nearly) all wise, beautiful, good, brave, and kind. There is one commoner protagonist, but the rest are all royal, and noble in both senses of the word.

You also need to be able to accept that marrying people off to other people who they've never spent any time with is a reasonable thing to do, and that (in at least one case) the woman's consent is not particularly required for this. Leave your feminism, as well as your Marxism, if any, at the door. You could blame the source genre, but... eh. The author managed to give a female protagonist plenty of agency in The Blue Sword. I found the king offering his daughters up as prizes hard to forgive.

My other gripe is about the semicolons. An occasional semicolon is fine; it shows that two thoughts are linked together more tightly than two separate sentences would convey. But when the vast majority of your sentences include a semicolon (I am not exaggerating - far more sentences have one than lack one), and not a few of them contain two semicolons, at that point it's moved beyond a stylistic choice, and has gone all the way past an annoying tic to become an outright fault in the writing.

If none of those three issues bother you too much, these are beautifully told (or retold) stories by a highly capable author.

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Monday, 1 May 2017

Review: The Improbable Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

The Improbable Adventures of Sherlock Holmes The Improbable Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by John Joseph Adams
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was OK. It could have been much better had a really good copy editor got rid of the Americanisms, the anachronisms, the misused words (two separate stories use "sojourn" to mean "journey," which is the opposite of what it means), the out-of-character moments, the occasional infodumping, and the cases where some of the authors attempted to sound 19th-century and only managed to sound stiff.

We have many (a great many) different visions of Holmes and his supporting characters here. In a couple, he wears the deerstalker hat, which was introduced by the Basil Rathbone films and never appears in the books. In one, he despises and disparages Gilbert and Sullivan while Watson enjoys it; in another, vice versa, which seemed to me much less like his canon character. In some of the stories, he shows a familiarity with popular literature which, in canon, he explicitly avoided reading; in some, he is much kinder and more polite than canon Holmes; in many, he is prepared to believe in non-rational explanations. In one, he's mistaken for an applicant for a servant's position, which is ridiculous; no British servant in the 19th century would mistake an (undisguised) gentleman for an applicant to be an underbutler, any more than he'd mistake him for a woman, and for much the same reason: cues of voice, dress, and manner proclaimed social class, and everyone was well aware of them from an early age. Not to mention that an applicant to be the underbutler would never knock at the front door.

In one story, a thoroughly OOC Holmes, his desire for a more intimate relationship with Watson thwarted by Watson's marriage, and hiding out in Paris after his apparent death, commits adultery with Irene Adler, who claims to love her husband even as she deceives and betrays him.

Most of the stories are from Watson's POV, though the very British, very Victorian Watson sometimes uses American or modern language that the authors and their copy editor seem oblivious to. A few are from other characters' points of view, such as Mary Robinette Kowal's story, from the POV of someone helped by Holmes and Watson. Although I respect MRK's advice on the Writing Excuses podcast very much, her actual stories usually disappoint me, and this was one example. The POV character has little agency, being mainly an observer, and this is one of several stories which was clearly referencing things outside the Holmes canon with which I'm not familiar - meaning that I missed the significance and that part of the story failed.

There are also several stories in which the author shows far too much of their research, turning Watson into an infodumper.

There were good stories, too. The Stephen King, for example, does a better job of Watson's voice than most of the others (voice is a talent of King's). The Neil Gaiman story, which I'd read in a couple of other collections, skilfully blends Mythos with a deeper familiarity with the Holmes canon than many of the other stories showed. I was amused by the story which took Conan Doyle's The Lost World>/i> as a point of departure for a clever pastiche, involving a dinosaur, trombones, and a ridiculous exaggeration of Holmes' mastery of disguise.

There were some good moments, but not, for me, enough of them to make up for the issues, and it ended up only average on the whole.

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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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