Monday, 26 November 2018

Review: Science Fiction

Science Fiction Science Fiction by Eric Scott Johnston
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The title of this book gives an accurate indication of its contents, but only in the sense that it's sorely lacking in imagination.

Almost everything in the wider galactic civilization works exactly the same as it does on Earth (that is, in America in the 21st century); the author even points out explicitly several times that things work the same as on Earth. Judges even use gavels, which (I understand) real-life Earth judges seldom do these days; it's largely a TV and movie thing. Now, this could be an attempt at satire by someone who doesn't really understand how satire works, or it could just be lack of imagination or not caring about making the background any richer or more developed than a painted theatre flat; I'm not sure, but I am unimpressed.

One difference: in the galactic civilization, you buy things by laughing at them. If that was how things worked here, I was at no point in any danger of buying the book (which I got via Netgalley for review). The attempted humour fell completely flat for me.

If a supposedly comedic story doesn't work for me as comedy, it needs to work as a story, and this didn't. The main character (he's not a protagonist) is one of those aimless, hapless losers who blunders from crisis to crisis making things worse. That may have been meant to be the funny part. I counted exactly one time where he took action that was effective; the rest was either pratfalls or being rescued by someone else. Nevertheless, as the mediocre white guy, he naturally ends up winning.

There are a number of winks in the direction of Hitchhiker's Guide, but this is no Hitchhiker's Guide.

I don't usually mention the copy editing of books I get from Netgalley, on the grounds that they often undergo another round of edits after I see them. But the acknowledgements of this book mention a copy editor, so I'm going to say something. Either this is the version from before any copy editor got a look at it (in which case, if you release it to reviewers, you should expect to be dinged), or the copy editor did an incredibly poor job with an even more incredibly poor manuscript. There were errors on practically every Kindle page. Even if two or three very skilled editors worked on it between now and publication, they would inevitably miss things, because there are just so many basic problems. The punctuation might as well be random, and there are all the classic errors: missing past perfect tense (frequent); apostrophes in the wrong places; inconsistent capitalization, including of names; you're/your confusion, in both directions; changes of tense, number, or grammatical direction in the course of many sentences; vocabulary words used incorrectly (and not even obscure vocabulary words: "attenuated", "credulity", "unrequited", "duplicity", "conflagration", "quested", "nondescript", "deigned"); homonym or spelling errors (breeched/breached, timber/timbre, relived/relieved, salon/saloon, kinds/kids, spec/speck, cuddle fish/cuttlefish, Marshall/Marshal, compliment/complement, curios/curious, silicone/silicon); dangling modifiers; comma splices; missing question marks in questions, and a question mark where it doesn't belong; it's all here, a perfect storm of incompetence with the basic tools of a writer. The first step in being ready to write a book is the ability to write a coherent, comprehensible, and correct sentence, and do so consistently.

There's a gag that never really pays off about a starship powered by "postmodernism philosophy" - not "postmodernism", not "postmodernist philosophy", but "postmodernism philosophy" (or, in one case, "postmodernismism philosopy").

I finished it largely because I was very mildly amused and kept hoping that it would get better, but it never did.

About once a year, I seem to get suckered into reading a book that I end up giving two stars. This is the one for this year.

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Review: Castle of Lies

Castle of Lies Castle of Lies by Kiersi Burkhart
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Initially, this seemed unpromising. Nasty, scheming characters only out for their own advantage, fighting among themselves? Not really my usual preference. Fortunately, it took a turn for the noblebright rather than the grimdark when an external threat got them (mostly) working together.

There's a lot of suffering and injustice and loss and death and filth (which never seems to make anyone sick) and desperation along the way, and again, that's not my favourite thing, not in such heaping quantities. Ultimately, though, I was happy with the resolution.

There are plenty of internal as well as external conflicts for the characters, and it presents imperfect people handling a bad situation beyond their control very well.

It takes a bit of concentration to follow the quick shifts between multiple first-person viewpoints, but I didn't have any trouble telling the characters apart.

I wouldn't read a sequel, as a matter of personal taste, but if you like this kind of thing, it's well done.

I received a copy via Netgalley for review.

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Review: Nightchaser

Nightchaser Nightchaser by Amanda Bouchet
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In a better world - one in which thousands of terrible books didn't drag the average down - this would be an average book. It's not bad. It's OK.

It's written to a template that a lot of books are being written to these days, which is a practice that tends to produce an undistinguished result. A plucky young woman with a traumatic past leads a band of ragtag rebels (or other people on the edge of the law) in space-operatic adventures.

Its debt to popular franchises is fairly obvious. Rebels vs evil empire, and a key player in the evil empire is closely related to the protagonist: Star Wars. Phasers: Star Trek. Yes, they're actually called "phasers".

The worldbuilding, such as it is, is very space-opera-standard-issue. Any time it goes anywhere near science, it gets it wrong. There are magical healing lasers; bullets don't work in space because they need oxygen for the sparks (that's actually built into the propellant, or it can be); a few days of charging via the ship's solar cells on a planet is enough to bring it to full charge, which is all it needs to get out of the gravity well of the planet (by some mysterious mechanism not explored) as well as hyperjump long distances; a small two-person craft can be used as an aircar and can also get out of the gravity well and perform hyperjumps; neither of these appear to use fuel or reaction mass; an increase in white cell count gives you, not leukemia, but a superior immune system so you never get sick (and your blood cures others); "purifying herbs" are used for "detox". The mention of floating cargo pallets suggests that there's antigravity, and that this also provides artificial gravity in the spacecraft and perhaps has something to do with the propulsion, but it's never explored at all, even in a passing mention.

There's a "midsummer festival" celebrated, seemingly at the same time, across multiple planets. In reality, it isn't even midsummer at the same time all over one planet.

There's a quotation from a famous (fictional) poet. The poetry is awful.

It's technically dystopian, which nearly made me quit it a couple of pages in, but I thought I'd give it a chance. It's also technically postapocalyptic, since Earth has been destroyed by nuclear war - the only evidence of anything nuclear; all power appears to be solar. Both of these would normally be an automatic "no" from me.

It's crammed absolutely full of misuses of the coordinate comma rule. Apart from that, and a few typos, the copy editing is mostly clean.

So why did I finish it? Well, the actual story, the adventure with a bit of romance thrown in, is well done. We start with a motivated protagonist in a dynamic situation. The stakes are personal, the action scenes are engaging, the tension escalates, the characters (at least the viewpoint characters) are more than cardboard cutouts, the conflicts are, if somewhat obviously set up, strong and compelling. If you mainly care about storytelling - and most readers do - this is a competent, even capable book. It's entertaining.

There are dozens like it, though, and I don't often read those kind of clone-army books because I'm usually disappointed at the missed opportunities to go beyond the template. Sometimes I'm pleasantly surprised. This time... eh, it was OK.

I received a copy via Netgalley for purposes of review.

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Sunday, 4 November 2018

Review: The Lord of Stariel

The Lord of Stariel The Lord of Stariel by A.J. Lancaster
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Aspects of this book (magical connection to the estate; incipient romance between lord and servant) reminded me of Robin McKinlay's Chalice , though this one has a much more down-to-earth, less lyrical and mystical tone. Even in the pre-release version I got from Netgalley for review, it was well-edited, with very few issues.

I do have to say that I spotted the villain very early on; it was pretty obvious who had what to gain from the chain of events. It was also obvious to me who was going to be chosen as Lord of Stariel, more for plot-related reasons than anything else. However, there were a couple of plot twists later on that more or less made up for it.

For a reluctant protagonist, Hetta does very well, taking on what has to be taken on with determination and competence. The secondary characters, their interactions and conflicts, are all well depicted, the magic is fresh, and despite the obviousness of some parts of the plot, I enjoyed the journey and would happily pick up a sequel.

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Review: The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future

The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future by Kevin Kelly
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Kelly is a techno-optimist, and while I am too, I'm not quite as unflaggingly rose-coloured-glasses as he is (at least in this book). I think he occasionally tips over into naivite, in fact, particularly when he minimises the dangers of bad actors and misinformation. (To be fair, the book was written before Brexit/Trump, and we were all more optimistic in those long-ago days of 2015.)

He is, though, an insightful commentator on technology, particularly internet technology and the various social changes that arise from it, and the book is well worth reading - as long as you apply a bit of a discount to the optimism. He divides the book into sections covering various trends he observes developing and accelerating, like sharing, remixing, filtering, and tracking; illustrates them clearly, in straightforward, engaging prose; and makes some predictions, which, like all predictions, should be taken with salt, but which are mainly intended to be thought-provoking rather than necessarily accurate in every detail.

The overall theme is: the world is changing, and if we understand how it is changing, we'll be better positioned to make the best of it. I think this is a sound thesis, and he illustrates it well and argues it (for the most part) convincingly.

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Review: The Flowers of Vashnoi

The Flowers of Vashnoi The Flowers of Vashnoi by Lois McMaster Bujold
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I'm nearly at the point of giving up on Bujold's new work. It's mostly in the form of novellas, which lack much development, particularly of the plot. This one, in particular, is quite linear: problem is discovered, problem is... not really solved, or resolved, but moved one step towards resolution with a lot remaining up in the air.

The wit and competence of the characters is no longer enough by itself to keep me engaged.

The voice work in the audiobook is by Grover Gardner, who seems to do all the Bujold audiobooks. Normally he does an excellent job, but in this one, it was occasionally unclear to me whether a character was speaking aloud or reflecting silently, and in one scene, it was hard to tell which character was talking at times. He also misplaced sentence emphasis slightly now and again.

Overall, then, this was mediocre for me, and I'd suggest it as for completists only.

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Monday, 22 October 2018

Review: Daisy's Run

Daisy's Run Daisy's Run by Scott Baron
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I wasn't especially surprised to find out, at the end of this book, that the author works in Hollywood (as an on-set doctor). A lot of it only makes sense if you apply Hollywood logic; consists of Hollywood cliches; or makes mistakes that Hollywood makes.

For example, people in real life don't sit bolt upright after they wake from a nightmare. It's a Hollywood cliche, to convey an internal experience in a visual medium.

The far side of the moon is constantly referred to as the "dark side"; anyone who knows any actual astrophysics knows that both sides of the moon get light, in a cycle that produces the phases of the moon. There's even the old myth of human brains using only a fraction of their processing and storage capacity, which a doctor should know is not true.

Things sometimes work in a way that those things simply wouldn't work, because plot and/or cliche. This includes a device that somehow gets more energy out of a system than was put in, covered over by some technobabble. Lights dim when the AI does a complex calculation.

No popular culture is referred to that originates after the book is written, which is a very common fault of this kind of book.

About halfway through I also started to notice that nobody seemed to have any backstory, and the ship was coming from a vague place for vague reasons, without apparently having any cargo or other raison d'etre. That eventually turned out to be kind of a feature, but... well, let me talk about the most annoying thing.

The most annoying thing is a protagonist who seems to go out of her way to cut off anyone who's about to explain what's going on. After she's done this a couple of times, it becomes painfully obvious that the author is doing it to maintain the tension. When she is finally cornered and has to listen to the explanation, at the 90% mark in the book, it turns out that the reason she wasn't told the secret in the first place is... weak.

"Weak" is a good description of a number of plot points, in fact. At one point, people have to travel physically across the solar system to take a message because their electronic systems have been compromised and they might transmit a virus if they used radio. So why not blink a laser on and off in Morse code?

"One millionth of one percent of the population" have a particular feature - which, if you work it out, means 10 people in a billion, so probably fewer than 100 people in all. That seems too few for what it is.

An electronic tablet has wires inside that can be physically rewired with no tools for a different purpose. Have you ever seen inside one of those? No wires.

Most of the book is in tight third person, following the protagonist; and then we get a few random paragraphs in someone else's POV, before returning to our regularly scheduled viewpoint.

Meanwhile, it's become evident that the genre I thought I was getting is not the actual genre (because secret), and the actual genre is one I strongly dislike.

The protagonist is ridiculously over-powered, possessing every conceivable skill that could help her; there is (eventually, at that 90% mark) an explanation for this, but even then it's clear that she's done things she ought not to be able to do, for vague reasons.

She's also prejudiced, against machines and people who have machine parts (which nearly all her shipmates do). Making your viewpoint character irrationally prejudiced is not a good way to endear her to the reader, even if you feel you have to do so to drive the plot.

A lot of convenient plot points are not foreshadowed until immediately before they become relevant, which (added to everything else) makes me suspect that the book wasn't plotted in advance, but discovery-written, with the author not knowing for a long time what was going on either. Now, discovery-written books can be just as good as plotted books, but only if you put the work in afterwards to do your foreshadowing and make everything make sense, as if you'd plotted it from the start. It shouldn't be possible to tell the difference. (Of course, now that I've said that, the author will probably tell me that I'm wrong and he did plot it through from the start. It doesn't read that way, though.)

There are some pluses. The action keeps moving (apart from some repetitive infodumping near the beginning). The author contrives - and it is a bit contrived - to give the protagonist another woman to talk to, even though she's physically on her own for most of the book. But on the whole, the weaknesses outweighed the strengths for me. The plot is a thin skin over an obtrusive skeleton, and is forced along by one unlikely thing after another, hitting a bunch of stupid cliches on the way through.

I received a copy via Netgalley for review.

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