Sunday, 1 July 2018

Review: Winterfair Gifts

Winterfair Gifts Winterfair Gifts by Lois McMaster Bujold
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I listened to the audio version of this novella, capably read by Grover Gardner, who also reads the Penric novellas by the same author.

It's an enjoyable side story in the Vorkosigan Saga, involving two minor characters from other books, Armsman Roic and Sergeant Taura. Roic, a provincial Barrayaran, has to overcome several of his prejudices when he meets the genetically modified super-soldier Taura. Together, they fight crime. (No, seriously, they do.)

While the short length doesn't allow for the complexity and depth of some of the novels in the series, it's witty, moving, and exciting, sometimes in the same scene. Its plot manages to combine both a mystery and a romance, two classic plot structures that Bujold makes work well together.

Worth picking up if you are a fan of the series; if you're not, a lot of the references will go over your head, and you're likely to enjoy it a lot less.

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Review: Glass and Gardens: Solarpunk Summers

Glass and Gardens: Solarpunk Summers Glass and Gardens: Solarpunk Summers by Sarena Ulibarri
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I picked this up primarily because of one of the authors, D.K. Mok, with whom I was in another anthology a couple of years back. I enjoyed her story in that collection, and also her novel, and expected that I'd enjoy this (which I did). Two of the other contributors are members of a writers' forum I participate in.

Like most anthologies, it turned out to be a mixed bag, though I liked most of the stories. The stories show a strong editorial hand in their selection, mostly being quite similar in tone and feel, though diverse in other respects.

I could wish that the copy editing had been as strong. Letters in the desert are referred to as "an acre tall'; an acre is a measure of area, not length. There are hyphens where they don't belong, and some missing where they do belong. There are common homonym errors (loathe/loath, horde/hoard, discrete/discreet) and a couple of less common ones (tulle for tuille, perspective for prospect). One author doesn't know how to use apostrophes with plural nouns (or, really, at all), and isn't corrected. And there are the usual common errors of unrequired coordinate commas, missing vocative commas, missing past perfect tense, and "may" instead of "might" in past tense narration scattered across various stories. Some are very good, others quite bad, depending on the skill of the author. (I should point out that I've seen the exact same issue in high-profile, professionally edited anthologies featuring award-winning authors.)

A character has "a plain face, but a handsome one"; which is it? Another character is given the wrong name. A band puts out a CD, many years in the future. There are several cases in which the amount of energy available from alternative sources, or storeable in a small space, is off by orders of magnitude, or gives the impression of being a perpetual motion machine.

So, plenty of issues with the editing, and some with the science. What about the stories?

On the whole, the stories don't have a lot of plot to them, in part because so much space is given to exposition. It's a difficult problem to avoid, given the premise; it plagued better-known writers than these in the anthology Hieroglyph, which also failed (as this one, mostly, does not) to be consistently upbeat in its vision of the future, despite stating that as a specific goal.

These are mostly what I think of as "worthy" stories, good-hearted attempts to envisage positive societies. This can mean that they're lacking in tension sometimes. One in particular, "Amber Waves," seems to set out to take away any tension inherent in the premise; every possible threat (and there are several significant ones) is quickly minimized, and the most disastrous of all turns out to be just what the characters needed. It was the least successful of the stories for me, as a result, lacking both tension and plot despite having the materials for both in ample supply.

Several of the pieces, being more explorations of ideas than plotted stories, use romance (or romantic elements) to provide some shape and a feeling of completion. This isn't a bad ploy; the romance plot is probably the best known plot in the world, so much so that, as with a familiar fairy story, you can reference a couple of elements of it and have the audience fill in the rest for themselves. Sometimes the romance is sweet and positive, as with "Under the Northern Lights"; sometimes, though, men are a problem, most notably in "Camping with City Boy".

The second-best-known plot is the mystery, and there's one of those, too: "Grover: Case #CO9 920, 'The Most Dangerous Blend'". As mysteries go, it's OK, neither not the most plausible nor, sadly, the least plausible I've read in terms of the killer's motivation.

There are a couple of heistish stories, as well, like "Riot of the Wind and Sun," in which a small desert town strives to attract enough attention to itself to gain much-needed resources, and (unsurprisingly) "Midsummer Night's Heist," about, and also by, an Italian subversive art collective which foils fascists.

A theme of many of the stories is a future with constrained resources, having to simplify lifestyles, do without, improvise, find ways around shortages and lacks. Often, this involves smaller, more loosely connected communities doing their best to get along. Several pieces deal with the kind of conflicts that small communities with constrained resources must face; "Watch Out, Red Crusher!" shows us a community that's ultimately unable to deal positively with deviance, which disappointed me, while both "Women of White Water" and "The Call of the Wold" show us older women offering their conflict-resolution and problem-solving skills to isolated groups of people. There's a nice phrase in the latter story: "The mantle of leadership was XXL and he was an extra-small".

Overall, though, this collection shows us a humanity that can step up to face its many problems, which I find commendable. While often short on plot, and needing better copy editing in places, the stories were mostly both enjoyable and thought-provoking for me.

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Wednesday, 27 June 2018

Review: The Moons of Barsk

The Moons of Barsk The Moons of Barsk by Lawrence M. Schoen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Disclaimers first: I know Lawrence M. Schoen slightly on social media (we have never met IRL), and he has hosted me on his Eating Authors blog series. I received an unedited copy via Netgalley for purposes of review; I won't comment specifically on the copy editing, on the assumption that it will get some more attention before publication.

I enjoyed the first of this series - despite what seemed to me considerable stretches, even holes, in the worldbuilding - because it had a lot of heart and I felt for the characters and their situation. The sequel is no different, although it held together better for me, and (unlike the first book) the ultimate resolution didn't seem excessively tidy, or depend on something that I saw as a plot hole or deus ex machina.

There's an interesting theme at the heart of this one, which was alluded to in the first book: that the future is fixed if people act in the ways that their culture has programmed them to, but if they rise above that and exercise free choice, they can change the world. One of the several viewpoint characters, Pizlo, carries most of this theme and expresses it most clearly, and he, as an outsider to his society and a precognitive, is in a position to know.

The other two viewpoint characters are set up as antagonists to one another, though they have more common cause than reason to fight one another (as one, but not the other, realizes). The tension between them was well sustained and well resolved, providing a strong emotional arc for all three viewpoint characters and for the book as a whole.

Though I could quibble with the worldbuilding and some of the sentence-level writing, the storytelling here is at an excellent level, and if that's what you mostly go to a book for, this might well be the book for you.

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Thursday, 21 June 2018

Review: Shift

Shift Shift by M.A. George
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An alternate-worlds novel, and a good one. Once I'd suspended my disbelief about identical people being born in extremely different worlds (there's a kind of gesture towards making this vaguely plausible, and you really have to accept it in order for the premise to work), I didn't find anything else that was hard to credit in a plot-hole sense.

The plot moved along nicely, in fact, driven by a quest that was fresh and original, with a cast of appealing-but-flawed characters led by the first-person viewpoint character, a determined, capable, snarky young woman.

Overall, highly enjoyable.

I received a copy from Netgalley for review.

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Review: The Book of Peril

The Book of Peril The Book of Peril by Melissa McShane
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoyed the first book in the series, though I felt it could have had more of a sense of urgency. In this one, I didn't feel that lack; not that it was a sky-high-stakes, high-octane thrill ride, but it didn't seem excessively relaxed either.

The main character is a principled, courageous, determined, and competent young woman, which is my favourite kind of protagonist. There's a mystery and a potential romance, which means plenty of plot. All in all, a strong, enjoyable urban fantasy.

I had both books from Netgalley for review, which means I see them before they're published, and I always hesitate to mention editing in my reviews in those cases. I am going to mention a thing, though, which I passed on to the publisher directly about Book 1, but is still there in Book 2.

The bookstore that the main character works in is called Abernathy's. That means that when she refers to something that belongs to the bookstore - its door, for example, or its custodian, which is her - there's a problem. Since you can't very well say "Abernathy's' door," I personally would work around it by saying "the door of Abernathy's", but she doesn't, and every time I struck a phrase like "Abernathy's door" it brought me up short, because the door doesn't belong to Abernathy, but to Abernathy's. A minor annoyance, but one that could easily be removed with a bit of rephrasing, and I'm going to deny the book the "well-edited" tag solely because of it.

I have no complaints about any of the rest of the editing (apart from one vocabulary confusion which I will again pass on to the publisher privately); Melissa McShane has an excellent grasp of the mechanics, as well as the craft, of writing, and her prose is very clean. The story is involving, the characters are frequently admirable, and all in all it's a good time.

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Friday, 15 June 2018

Review: Penric's Fox

Penric's Fox Penric's Fox by Lois McMaster Bujold
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Another installment in the novella series, jumping back in time to between Penric and the Shaman and Penric's Mission. This time it's a mystery, and a decently handled one; Bujold can write a good mystery, as we've seen in some of her Vorkosigan books. It's a kind of fantasy police procedural, in which the fantasy elements are essential to the plot; both the motive for the murder and the approach to solving it rely on them.

Like the other Penric books, I enjoyed it without feeling that it ever approached the heights of Bujold's best works. The emotional stakes are lower, somehow, the emotional depths shallower, the insights less remarkable. It was good, but never threatened to become great.

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Review: The Story Peddler

The Story Peddler The Story Peddler by Lindsay A. Franklin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book managed to sneak a dystopia onto my reading list, which is quite a feat; and, even more impressively, it also managed to make me enjoy it.

The trope of forbidden magic is overplayed, but this was a good variation on it: magic users/artists who are given the choice by an oppressive regime of being either co-opted or suppressed. The protagonist, a determined and capable young woman (my favourite kind of protagonist), takes the option "neither of the above" and connects up with other dissidents, while the despot's daughter struggles to temper his tyranny. Eventually, the two story threads connect, leading to a climax which took me by surprise with its suddenness.

Well crafted, with characters that deepen beyond their stereotypes because they all have a backstory and all want something, which they're prepared to pursue at personal cost. There's no softpedaling in terms of the outcomes for the characters - several of them come to tragic ends - but it skillfully avoids becoming dark, hopeless, or cynical.

Not quite amazing enough to make it to five stars, but certainly very good, and I expect to include it in my Year's Best list this year.

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