Sunday, 15 January 2017

Review: Dreadnought

Dreadnought Dreadnought by April Daniels
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I don't give five stars out lightly, but this book deserved them. At one and the same time a fine superhero tale and a startlingly powerful portrait of what it's like to be transgender, it weaves the two together seamlessly, and delivers both exciting plot and deep characterisation.

Danny has never felt like a boy, and so when the dying superhero Dreadnought passes his mantle on to the nearest bystander - Danny - the power transforms the teenager into Danielle.

She now has the basic Superman, or rather Supergirl, power set: flight, strength, invulnerability (slightly more limited than the Kryptonians). No heat vision, X-ray vision or freeze breath, though. Most of the possible variants on superpowers have already been rung over the past 80 years or so, and there's nothing startlingly new on that front here - there's even a passing mention of a billionaire with a utility belt and no powers - but that's fine. It's the personal journey of the superhero that we're concerned with here.

There certainly are a few familiar tropes: rescuing an airliner, for example. And when it comes to the transgender experience, there are some notes that anyone who's aware of what that community has to deal with will also find very familiar (because they really do happen all the time): the verbally and emotionally abusive, rejecting father; the "friend" who says terrible things; the radical feminist who refuses to accept a trans woman as a woman, who sees only a man invading women's space yet again. But all of these are dealt with in a way that I found emotionally true and deep. Seeing Danny simultaneously being a selfless, powerful, courageous superhero and thinking of herself as a selfish, powerless coward because of years of abuse was heartwrenching.

I can't give a higher recommendation than this: when I got to the end, if there had been a sequel available I would have bought it immediately. This book sets out to be a compelling superhero adventure and also an exploration of what it's like to be trans, and for my money succeeded admirably in both.

Speaking of money, I received (only) a review copy via NetGalley in exchange for my review.

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Monday, 2 January 2017

My Top 16 Books for 2016

It's that time again: time to do a retrospective post on the best books I read in the previous year. Earlier instalments are here: my top 15 books for 2015 and my top 14 books for 2014.

I didn't read as much last year as in the previous two years, which surprised me a little when I saw the numbers. I wasn't as obsessive about noting and reviewing everything I read, and a couple of books I read didn't have Goodreads entries, but I don't think that made all of the difference between the 101 books I read in 2015 and the 77 in 2016; I was also busy writing, and wasn't commuting for most of the year (so I didn't listen to as many audiobooks, or read during lunchtime at work).

Goodreads doesn't seem to have the same graphic as it has the last couple of years - at least, I can't find it - but I managed to find the URL that gives me a list of the year's books (https://www.goodreads.com/review/list/941876-mike?read_at=2016&sort=rating&view=list, for future reference), so I can do a similar summary.

I read 11 books out of 77 that got 5 stars, compared to 11 out of 101 in 2015 and 9 out of 104 in 2014, which is a good trend. I also read 12 3-star books (19 in 2015, 23 in 2014) and one 2-star book (2 in both 2015 and 2014), leaving 53 4-star books, by my calculation (68 in 2015 and 70 in 2014).

Either I'm getting better at picking books I like, or my standards are slipping. Either way, the bulk of the books I'm reading continue to get 4 stars, meaning I enjoyed them and they were well done, but they weren't so well done or so enjoyable that they deserved a fifth star. Three-star books I didn't dislike, but they were either lacking in execution or failed to enthuse me; a two-star book, for me, is pretty much a failure, neither well executed nor enjoyable, though showing some hint of potential that lifts it above one star. I haven't read a one-star book in several years, because I don't finish books that bad (and don't rate books I haven't finished).

So: the countdown. Let's start with the best of the 4-star books, the ones that almost made it across that 5-star threshold. Competition was fierce in this group, with only four places available, and several others almost made it.

Links are to my Goodreads reviews.

15. Knight Moves, Walter Jon Williams. One of Williams' complex, engaging meditations on the posthuman condition, which I enjoyed despite its occasional pessimism.

14. An Accident of Stars, Foz Meadows. Portal fantasy is back, and this is a fresh, contemporary take on a genre that dates back to the 19th century, but was particularly popular several decades ago. A diverse, and mostly female, cast struggle and are realistically impacted by the problems they face in a well-imagined world.

13. Burning Bright, Melissa McShane. Smoothly written, excellently edited, with an exciting and absorbing plot, this is Patrick O'Brien meets Julian May: psychic powers in the Regency British Navy. Misses out on five stars only because I didn't feel the worldbuilding had been thought all the way through.

12. Hallow Point, Ari Marmell. Noir and urban fantasy collide, pick themselves up and make a smart remark. A principled but pragmatic hero and a clever plot kept me glued to the pages.

Now the 5-star books. A really good crop this year, and it was hard to rank them.

11. Elements of Fiction Writing - Characters and Viewpoint, Orson Scott Card. The only nonfiction book in this year's top list, this guide to characterisation is written with insight and clarity. (From the days before Card went off the deep end.)

10. Ancillary Mercy, Ann Leckie. While not as amazing as the first book (because some of what makes it amazing is no longer a surprise), this is a worthy conclusion to the trilogy, beautifully layered and doing clever things with point of view. More of an unfolding of meaning than a conventional plot, something that's hard to do at novel length.

9. A Christmas Gone Perfectly Wrong, Cecilia Grant. This lovely little romance demonstrates that novellas aren't always just novels that haven't had enough development; sometimes they're tightly plotted, beautifully executed stories of exactly the right length.

8. Dreams of Distant Shores, Patricia McKillip. A collection of lyrical, beautifully imagined short pieces which demonstrate that magic doesn't have to have known rules if you're using it to bring the characters to realisations, not to solve their problems.

7. The Facefaker's Game, Chandler Birch. A gripping adventure for a character I wanted to see succeed, in a grimy, slightly steampunkish setting that's skilfully depicted.

6. Magonia, Maria Dahvana Headley. This author has perfect command of voice, as I noticed in the beautiful Runyonesque she published on tor.com a couple of years ago, and here that mastery is on full display - along with a suspenseful plot, vivid characters, and fantastical worldbuilding. Also a great reflection of the experience of living with a chronic illness.

5. The Long List Anthology, David Steffen. These short stories came close to Hugo glory, and they deserved it; emotionally powerful, excellently crafted, richly human and sparkling with imagination, they even managed to make me like some kinds of stories that I usually don't.

4. Futuristica, Volume 1, Chester W. Hoster. I set this above The Long List Anthology simply because the fresh, vigorous, engaging stories in this volume were more consistently to my taste. Clever mashups, trope twisting and up-to-the-minute science abound.

3. Darkhaven, A.F.E. Smith. Complex, conflicted, distinctive characters negotiate multiple intertwined subplots in impeccable prose to form a compelling story. 

2. Vigil, Angela Slatter. Avoids the risk of being just another cookie-cutter urban fantasy through flawless execution coupled with an unusual richness of development and variety in the characters' relationships. 

1. Chalice, Robin McKinley. As beautiful and emotionally resonant as you'd expect if you've ever read any of her other work, and set in a fascinating world.

Because two of the collections had male editors, this makes 7 out of 15 books with male authors or editors, and 8 with female authors (even though the content of those two collections is, by a small margin, majority female). I tend to read roughly 50:50 male and female authors, without setting out to do so, though I sometimes have runs of one or the other; 10 out of last year's 15 authors were male, and 4 out of 2014's 14, for comparison, so out of the 45 books that have made my top lists in the past three years, 21 are by, or are edited by, men.

I look forward to more excellent books in 2017.

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Review: Scientific Romance

Review: Scientific Romance, edited by Brian Stableford.

Before the term "science fiction" was invented, stories of scientists and their possible discoveries, of fantastic (but at least remotely plausible) voyages, and of strange (but not overtly supernatural) phenomena where known as "scientific romances" in France, Britain, and the US. This volume collects a number of these early works, from all three countries. 

I read an ARC from Netgalley, so I don't know if it's due for another editing pass before publication; the version I saw had a number of scanning recognition errors that had not been corrected. Picking these up requires painstaking work by a good proofreader, and they're the bane of any book based on a scan. 

Setting that aside, the stories themselves varied from the merely historically interesting to some that I still enjoyed as a modern reader. A few are clumsy explorations of philosophical points. There seem to have been a lot of socialists, for example, who expressed their ideas by means of scientific romance - not just H.G. Wells, the giant of the field in Britain, who is represented here by "The Star," but several others too. I don't mean to imply that all the socialist stories are mere clunky propaganda pieces; "The Child of the Phalanstery" by Grant Allen is an extremely well-constructed speculation on the darker side of a utopia with an active eugenics/euthanasia program, and is relevant to debates going on today.  

Others of the stories are, now that we have so much more scientific knowledge, obviously impossible, though despite that, I found Jack London's "The Shadow and the Flash" still effective as a story. The same can be said of Conan Doyle's "The Horror of the Heights". But several succeed both as stories and in terms of their speculations. It's interesting to see some of the perennial themes: the danger of humans being replaced by intelligent machines, the creation of an unstoppable plague, the end of the world from various causes, radical life extension, interference with human memory. There's even a kind of predecessor to "Planet of the Apes" in Edmond Harcourt's "The Gorilloid".  

A number of the authors were familiar names to me: Nathanael Hawthorne, Fitz-James O'Brien, James Clerk Maxwell, Ambrose Bierce, Frank R. Stockton, Jerome K. Jerome, Jack London, William Hope Hodgson and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Others were new, mainly the French ones, which are presented in translations which read exactly like the English-language works of the time. 

There's a scholarly introduction - this is clearly a kind of literature on which the editor is an expert - and an appendix that lists the major works of scientific romance published from 1833 to 1914. I'm not sure why Frankenstein (1818) doesn't make the list; it seems as if it would fit the parameters. 

Most of the works here are, of course, by men (I believe Camille Debans' "The Dancing Partner" is the sole exception), and for a balance, anyone interested in early speculative fiction should read the stories in The Feminine Future: Early Science Fiction by Women Writers, which contains some excellent stories from a slightly different, but overlapping, time period (1873-1930). If you're interested in the roots of science fiction, though, either as a scholar or simply as a reader, Stableford's Scientific Romance is a good collection.

Saturday, 26 November 2016

Review: The Best of All Possible Worlds

The Best of All Possible Worlds The Best of All Possible Worlds by Karen Lord
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is one of those books that are becoming more common these days: thoughtful; slow-moving and mostly low-tension, with occasional bursts of action; good-hearted characters who are essentially early-21st-century liberals in their worldview; beautifully written and impeccably edited; fresh in premise; masterful in execution. Into this nameless and assorted category I would group Ann Leckie's Ancillary series; The Goblin Emperor; A Natural History of Dragons; and Chalice, among books I've read relatively recently.

It's also the kind of modern planetary romance that, say, Sherri S. Tepper or Julian May wrote; not a space opera, because it's not in space, and technically science-fictional, but with psychic powers playing a prominent role. It's even more reminiscent of Ursula K. Le Guin, and I would be astonished if Le Guin was not a huge influence on the author.

Now that I've set it in a context of other books and authors, what is it about? Well, one of the most prominent and highly respected races of humans, in a galaxy with several of those, have lost their planet and most of their people to enemy action. Because, for sociological reasons, more men than women spent time off-planet, there's now a shortage of women among the survivors, and they want to find ways to preserve their culture as well as their genetic heritage. (It turns out late in the book that, because of the way their psychic powers work, they actually don't do well at all if they're not pair-bonded, and they may even become dangerous; but this isn't developed very much.)

Accordingly, on a planet which for various reasons has become a destination for many groups of refugees and displaced people, the proud and self-disciplined race are looking among the cultural groups descended from those of their people who left their planet or were pushed out in the past, in the hope of finding brides. The main character, a local civil servant, is assigned to help them in this quest, and ends up having the universe's least romantic romance with the leader of the search.

Even though I call it an unromantic romance, it was still quite sweet, just as the civil servant was interesting (and wryly funny). The pace is unhurried, but it doesn't feel too stretched out; I wasn't bored, it just wasn't a constant barrage of plot incidents. There are certainly moments of tension, but if tension, passion, conflict and drama are what you mainly look for in a book, you shouldn't look here. They all occur, but, like the events of the plot, they're widely spaced and not, for the most part, built up to any great heights. It's more a thoughtful book than it is a spectacular one, and the overall tone is of warm-hearted maturity.

The title, of course, is from Voltaire's satire Candide, and he took it from Leibnitz; I'm afraid I didn't quite get the significance of the reference. The refuge planet is neither utopian nor dystopian, though it's peaceful, and with a few notable exceptions the people living there are well-disposed towards others.

It took me a while to figure out what the deal was with Earth, and where we were in the timeline. Earth is under a ban, meaning that nobody is meant to interfere with it or make open contact, but I wasn't sure until late in the book whether this was at our time or after it (it appears to be more or less at our time, though it could easily be some time before or after). Various groups have been rescued from disasters on Earth at different times, though, by mysterious guardians, and brought to the planet of refuge, which justifies - I suppose - the fact that most of the cultural references are to Earth culture. It's a bit of a worldbuilding shortcut, if not accompanied by any cultural references to any of the other cultures, and that, for me, was the most noticeable weakness in the book - if you don't count the missed opportunities to build up tension, conflict and drama, and I think that was a deliberate and understandable choice by the author rather than a failure of craft. (I also want to reiterate that those elements were present, just not front and centre.)

I do find, though, that I mostly respect these books more than I love them. Tension and conflict are the salt and fat of literature, and if you have a book that's all salt and fat, then you have literary junk food - meaning that it will be popular, comparatively easy to produce, and profitable, but not critically acclaimed or respected. But there are haute cuisine ways to use salt and fat to enhance the flavour of fine food, and sometimes these more languid books do miss opportunities to bring out their philosophical flavour with better seasoning. It's a tricky balance to strike. You don't want to distract from the reflective, insightful nature of the book by setting off fireworks all the time, but you also want to engage your audience emotionally as well as intellectually. For me, The Best of All Possible Worlds walked that line well, but for other people's taste it will fail.

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Monday, 17 October 2016

Review: Goldenfire

Goldenfire Goldenfire by A.F.E. Smith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I gave the first book in this series five stars, and was eager for the second. Although I didn't enjoy it quite as much, for reasons I'll explore shortly, it's certainly very good and I don't hesitate to recommend it.

Once again, it was impeccably edited; I didn't notice a single error, which is vanishingly rare. I'm lucky if I find one or two books in a hundred where I don't see any errors at all.

The first book managed to juggle seven point-of-view characters, by my count; gave them all distinct arcs; and pulled it off successfully. It also successfully wound a mystery plot, three different romance plots, and a thriller plot closely together, and paid them all off at the end. This book, I felt, was less successful, in part because the characters and plots were not so tightly wound together.

There's still a mystery/thriller plot, which involves an assassin whose identity (and gender) is withheld from the reader for most of the book, with several candidates presented. I did eventually guess the correct one, but not until late in the story. Paradoxically, this single main plotline (with a couple of minor plots involving characters' relationships and some coming-of-age) feels more diffuse than the multiple plot threads in the first book - partly, perhaps, because one of the participants is physically distant, out of the city that was the setting of everything in the first book, and with not much communication with the other viewpoint characters.

Of the seven viewpoint characters in the first book, two are now dead; one doesn't figure in this book (a pity, because I liked her, but I can see where she wasn't needed for this plot); one is still a significant character, but not a viewpoint character' and the remaining three still have viewpoints. In addition, there's the viewpoint of the assassin, and a group of trainees for the Helm elite guard, of whom, by my count, four are major characters, and two of those have viewpoints. There's also another viewpoint character, the training master, who appeared in a minor role in the first book, and another important character, the training master's partner, who doesn't have a viewpoint (mainly in order to preserve the mystery about who the assassin is). So, unless I've miscounted, still seven viewpoint characters, plus four other characters whose actions are significant to the plot but whose viewpoints we don't see into. True, one is the assassin, whose viewpoint we do see, but we don't find out which one until late, so that character almost counts as two: the assassin, who we hear from, but with minimal depth of information in order to preserve the mystery; and the assassin's cover persona, who we only see through the eyes of other characters.

Unlike the first book, where each character had a very different arc, here two of the ten important characters have very similar motivations, though they do resolve them differently.

Having more characters, some of whom don't have viewpoints, some of whom don't have much direct interaction with the others, and two of whom are very similarly motivated, yielded, for me, a less involving story than the first book, where we had deeper insight into a smaller number of characters, all of whose motivations and choices centred around a single set of events from different angles. I can see how this setup was necessary in order to create the mystery around the assassin's identity and provide some red herrings, and that was well done, but I still enjoyed it a little less.

I'm still keen for the third book, and glad to hear that it's now with the publisher. I'll be watching for it to come out.

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Monday, 10 October 2016

Review: A Christmas Gone Perfectly Wrong

A Christmas Gone Perfectly Wrong A Christmas Gone Perfectly Wrong by Cecilia Grant
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I've started reading some romance as preparation for writing it, and found this recommended on a blog - one about feminist romance, I believe. It's very well executed, tightly plotted, and almost flawlessly edited.

Since the setting is Regency England, "feminist" consists of "determined young woman defies social convention and insists on having a voice." This is well done, and I found it believable; the heroine's father, who raised her alone, is something of an eccentric philosopher, paving the way for her to be both naive about society and not strongly inculcated with its norms. Yet she's not a headstrong, egotistical princess; her defiance of convention is always on pragmatic grounds, and well argued. I would call this book an example of male-positive feminism, too, in that (while highlighting that many men are not like this) the hero is respectful of women in general and the heroine in particular, and treats her well throughout. His arc is to loosen up and be more pragmatic and less of a prig, and to consider what he wants as well as what is expected of him; he's neither a brute nor an idiot, something I appreciate in a male romance character.

This is a novella. Sometimes, novellas are novels that haven't been developed enough; other times, they're short stories that have been excessively padded. This is neither. It's a novella because it's executed without a word, a scene, a description or an incident being wasted. Everything is tightly woven together; even the falcon does double duty, as the reason why the hero is at the heroine's house in the first place and as an effective symbol which helps the main characters think about their situation.

Their musings, and the way their thinking about themselves and each other evolves through a series of misadventures, helped to push my rating to five stars, which I don't grant lightly; I only give it to books that are both well executed and also have some depth, and this one qualifies. Without bogging down the plot - indeed, as an essential part of the plot - the characters reflect in quite a profound way about what makes a foundation for a good relationship, and come to good conclusions.

I noticed one single editing mistake (the average number of errors I notice in a book, indie or trad-pub, is about two dozen), and it was a missing quotation mark at about the 72% mark.

Overall, a fine effort, and I'll be looking into the author's other books.

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Friday, 7 October 2016

Review: Darkhaven

Darkhaven Darkhaven by A.F.E. Smith
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Impeccably edited, masterfully plotted - with not one, not two, but three romance subplots; a mystery; intrigue; and some strong thriller elements, all in a lightly sketched but effective early-steampunkish secondary-world fantasy setting. With shifters. And not your usual wolves, either, but wyverns, alicorns and other wondrous beasties.

First, let's talk about the editing. As a copy editor myself, I notice editing errors, and HarperCollins' books are usually full of them. In this, I didn't notice a single one. I suspect that has a lot to do with the author being an editor in her day job, but regardless of the reason, it's rare, and commendable.

The characters are well drawn: conflicted, flawed, sometimes obsessive, but mostly wanting to do the right thing (the exception is an excellently depicted, scarily effective, and believable villain). All seven viewpoint characters have strong, and contrasting, arcs. The plot, with its many moving parts, fits together beautifully, and the author isn't afraid to mix tragic and happy endings. The book both brings all of the threads to a conclusion and sets up the dominoes for a sequel, which I suspect may take place a generation later. And which I will definitely be looking forward to buying, by the way.

The setting isn't especially prominent; it's early industrial age, with coal-powered trams and factories, but guns are new, foreign, and rare. It's mostly background, but what there is of it is sketched competently, and there's plenty of space for development. The shifter parts have great sensawunda as well as a darker, more threatening aspect that helps to drive the plot.

All in all, highly recommended, both for its excellent craft and its compelling story.

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