Friday, 13 December 2019

Review: Sands of Memory

Sands of Memory Sands of Memory by Melissa McShane
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

While not up to the previous book's level of tension, a decent, enjoyable adventure.

It's replete with Arabian Nights tropes, so not necessarily a super-original setting either.

The team accidentally unleash bad consequences on other people and escape without permanent damage themselves - in fact, in a better state than they start out in. So, also not my favourite from a moral-consequences standpoint.

In fact, it had enough flaws that I'm leaving it off my Best of the Year list, something I seldom do with a Melissa McShane book. That's not to say it was bad, just that I usually like her books a lot more than I liked this particular one. I don't regret buying it, but I hope the next one brings back the full level of tension (despite the team's now awesome power levels).

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Thursday, 12 December 2019

Review: The Immortal Conquistador

The Immortal Conquistador The Immortal Conquistador by Carrie Vaughn
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'm a long-time fan of the Kitty Norville series, though I have lost touch with it a bit lately, so when this side-story came up on Netgalley I requested the chance to read and review it. Thanks to the publisher for granting the request.

Here we get the full backstory of Rick, the 500-year-old vampire and decent guy who's one of Kitty's allies. Turned against his will by an acquaintance who knew him back when they were both on Coronado's unsuccessful expedition to find the Cities of Gold in Mexico, Rick is determined to be bad at vampiring; he has friends, not victims, and only uses his powers to protect people.

Naturally, this doesn't come easily, but it helps that he spends the first hundred years in complete isolation from other vampires, so nobody tells him how he's supposed to do it. Even in the present day, there's a lot he doesn't know, and he's still determined to be a good man (and a devout Catholic) insofar as that's possible for someone like him.

Carrie Vaughn is an excellent storyteller - her short stories are highly skilled, even though she's probably primarily known as a novelist, and in part this book is what used to be called a "fixup," joining several short stories together into a longer, multi-part narrative. The frame story isn't just a frame, though, but expands into something more.

The very early part, when Rick is turned, is darker and more horrific than I usually prefer, but it sets up a contrast that the author uses well. The essential goodness of a character who fights against the evil imposed on him to remain, in important ways, himself shines through powerfully throughout.

Although I've read a number of the Kitty Norville books, you could read this book without having done so and be fully oriented; the events of those books are only referred to briefly, some of the many adventures that Rick has had over his long life, and Rick himself is at the heart of the story. He's an appealing protagonist, and I enjoyed reading this. Perhaps I'll go back and read some more of the main series.

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Review: Spinning Silver

Spinning Silver Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Naomi Novik is doing some wonderful stuff lately. I was starting to feel that the flaws in her Temeraire series were outweighing the strengths, and then she started writing standalone fantasy novels like this, and like the excellent Uprooted.

It's a twist on the Rumpelstiltskin story, but it isn't at all closely constrained by its source material. There are at least three protagonists and several more viewpoint characters (one of whom was a bit of a surprise, and a signal, for me, that that particular character might have a shot at redemption, unlikely as that seemed); the main three are all capable young women who are treated, by their culture and by the men who surround them, as far less than they actually are. They decisively prove that underestimation to be wrong.

One is the daughter of a Jewish moneylender, and I'll admit that I set the book aside for a while and read other things because I was worried about which particular other shoes would drop for a Jewish family in an analog of Eastern Europe in what seems like the 18th or 19th century.

(view spoiler)

With those caveats, I found the story engaging, the characters powerful, the sense of tension and the stakes compelling, and the plot well-paced. It's not every author who can pull off a book with this many viewpoints and with three or four major plot threads closely intertwined, but Naomi Novik is definitely one who can.

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Sunday, 24 November 2019

Review: The Elementalist: Rise of Hara

The Elementalist: Rise of Hara The Elementalist: Rise of Hara by T. M. White
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

DNF at 42%. Between muddled worldbuilding, an annoying protagonist, and constant promises of action and adventure that still hadn't been fulfilled, this just wasn't for me.

There are three layers to the worldbuildng. Layer one is a fantasy secondary world, complete with continent map. The western not-quite-half of the continent has cultures with analogies to France or possibly Italy, and (judging by the names) to Ireland, but they're called something else. The eastern more-than-half has unaccountably (given its huge coastline) been enforcing a policy of isolation for years, now thawing, and (again, judging by the names) appears to have analogs of China and the Middle East. I'm never a big fan of basing fantasy cultures on real cultures, but I understand why people do it. The geography and history are, of course, not those of our world or anything close to it.

Somehow (again), the western part has had the industrial revolution and is all the way up to dieselpunk. This is where the second layer comes in.

The second layer of worldbuilding, at odds with the first, is set dressing that comes straight out of the 1920s or 1930s US, complete with fedoras, trench coats, and jazz. Early on, I noted a car stopped at a red light as challenging my suspension of disbelief (since that's a very arbitrary signal); I didn't know the half of it yet. This secondary world with a completely different history is fully furnished in a job lot of scenery and props straight out of the Jazz Age. It's like you were filming a fantasy epic and just decided to use the sound stage left over from The Great Gatsby.

On top of that is the third layer, which is the speech and attitudes of the characters. These are from contemporary USA, with no visible attempt to go for the 1920s or 30s as anything more than furniture. A nurse is more like a modern nurse practitioner, the status of women seems approximately as it is today, there are college protests against hate crimes and racism towards immigrants, and numerous small attitudes and turns of speech put us firmly in the early 21st century.

I was going to ding the book half a star for muddled worldbuilding, but it wasn't chock full of the usual sloppy mechanical errors, and there kept being promises (in the situation, and in what the protagonist was being trained for) that it would be a thrilling adventure later on, so I kept reading.

Ah, the protagonist. My personal favourite kind of protagonist is one who is strongly motivated by a personal commitment to do the right thing, and will persevere through any challenge, displaying competence and sound judgement and winning allies to her cause (because I do prefer female protagonists). Preferably, she's someone who isn't the most talented or the most gifted (and definitely not fated or prophesied as the Chosen One); she's an underdog, making up with strength of character for being ill-equipped to meet the scale of challenge she's presented with.

Voi, the protagonist of this book, is pretty much the exact opposite of all of this, except that she is a young woman. She constantly huffs, pouts, broods and sulks; she resists her training; she resists being recruited to the cause (probably quite rightly, but it makes her an unpromising protagonist); she has no self-discipline to go with her awesome powers of awesomeness that are better than anyone else in the history of talent. When she does make a decision, it's almost always an ill-judged one. I disliked her as a person and found her constantly annoying as a protagonist. Finally, when she had dangerous sex with a complete stranger because her powers were (for some reason) making her horny, I was done. Even though the many promises of action and adventure were finally (nearly halfway into the book) looking like they might start to pay off, that was just one too many negatives for me.

This book is very likely to the taste of quite a number of people, but I am not a part of that number, I'm afraid.

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Review: Floodtide

Floodtide Floodtide by Heather Rose Jones
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A very strong beginning and quite a strong ending were let down, for me, by a weak middle, and a viewpoint character who was neither the most interesting person nor the person with the most at stake. These craft missteps brought a well-edited and generally appealing book down to three stars.

I always say that if you give me a motivated character in a dynamic situation, you'll have my attention for as long as you want it. At the beginning of the book, it looked like that was what I was going to get. Roz is dismissed, without references, pay, or anything more than the clothes she's wearing at the time, for "lewd conduct" with another female servant. Desperate, she wanders the streets, homeless, penniless, and hopeless.

However, she quickly falls on her feet and gets not one, but two good opportunities. The biggest point of tension for her is that she'll eventually have to decide between them, but that decision isn't imminent or urgent. There are some half-formed romantic longings, but they never become plot drivers either, and the middle devolves into a long series of mostly inconsequential events. Roz is not striving for anything specifically, or trying to resolve any story question in particular, so there's really no plot to speak of, and she isn't a true protagonist, just a main character.

Interesting things are happening just offstage and to people who aren't Roz, but she (and, therefore, the audience through her first-person viewpoint) gets to hear about them only indirectly and not in any depth. I got the impression that this is a side story to a series that may tell some of those stories; I very much wished that I was reading the books that told those stories, and not this one, at times. Roz's is an engaging viewpoint, despite or, at times, because of its naivite, and she's one of those characters I sometimes wish we saw more of: the reliable, hard-working person of low status who isn't a noble in disguise or a fated Chosen One. The Samwise Gamgee, if you like. But in the whole of the book, she only does one thing that affects events to any degree worth speaking of, apart from perhaps bringing together characters who do more - and then holding things for them and handing them things while they do the interesting stuff.

Because there is interesting stuff on stage again, there at the end, and the characters collectively save the day. I'm all for ensemble casts, and I have no issue with that whatsoever; I'm even quite happy that, at the end, Roz makes something of a sacrifice (that still leaves her in a good position) to enable someone else to fulfil their potential. Unfortunately, that doesn't make up for the aimless middle.

What kept me reading through the aimless middle was the promise offered by the beginning; Roz's voice; and the fact that, even in an ARC from Netgalley, the copy editing was to a high standard (only five minor errors, two vocabulary and three apostrophe-related). The world-building was also interesting, with ubiquitous magic enmeshed with both folk tradition and Catholicism. But that middle part did drag the book down to three stars for me.

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Saturday, 23 November 2019

Review: Endurance: The Complete Series

Endurance: The Complete Series Endurance: The Complete Series by A.C. Spahn
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

First, the praise. For me, this was a better-written and funnier space opera than the Hugo-winning Red Shirts by John Scalzi. The characters are more distinct and better developed, the plot makes more sense, and the description is far superior.

Now, the undermining of the praise. I thought Red Shirts was mediocre and not at all funny, and didn't think it remotely deserved its Hugo. The characters in that book were indistinguishable, not least because they (and their environment) are never described at all, and there was a huge, ridiculous plot hole. You could film it quite easily; just cut out a few identical, vaguely human shapes from thin cardboard, write random names on them, move them round a white room on obvious wires, and have Scalzi do the voice. (Not voices; there's only one, and it's Scalzi's.) That would give exactly my experience of reading Red Shirts, if you made a few careless editing errors and tried to be arty at the end, but failed.

So actually, Endurance didn't set my world on fire. It made it to four stars, barely, because the characters are likeable, and they develop some individuality and have arcs. They're not the most complex or fully rounded characters you'll ever meet, though; they each only have a couple of characteristics, even when we've been in their viewpoint for a while, and their backstory tends to be vaguely hinted at rather than developed.

The book is made up of multiple stories with the same characters and setting, but tending to focus on one or two characters per story, moving around the crew of the spaceship after which the book is named. There's an overall story arc, though, which makes it like a limited TV miniseries rather than a movie; each episode has its own complete story, but together they make a larger story.

That more or less worked for me. I'm not sure of the timespan over which the stories were written, but there are inconsistencies between them, from the spelling of the talky/talkie box to whether or not there is a substantial United Earth military apart from the law enforcement organization to which the central characters belong.

The setting is heavy on the tropes and light on actual science, which is kind of what I've come to expect from space opera. However, I found the balance a bit too much on the tropey side and away from the science side. Not only do we have a crew of misfits in an outdated ship (who turn out to be the greatest ever and save the day repeatedly), but we have several sets of planet-of-hats aliens closely resembling humans (physically and culturally) except for a couple of minor characteristics; a genius engineer capable of single-handedly inventing FTL travel and understanding alien technology quite easily; and a science crew who can figure out a cure in a very short time for an alien disease that the aliens haven't got a cure for, even though none of the crew are medical scientists and the aliens have been specifically mentioned to have medical science far in advance of humans'. Oh, and zombies, which made no sense whatsoever.

The copy editing was good; I only noticed four or five minor glitches, which is far fewer than average. That helped to keep me reading, even though I found the plot predictable (when it wasn't nonsensical) and less than fully engaging. It was mildly amusing, mostly because of the crew's banter.

I didn't love it. I wouldn't run out and buy another one. But I thought it was better than Scalzi.

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Saturday, 9 November 2019

Review: The Language of the Dragon

The Language of the Dragon The Language of the Dragon by Margaret Ball
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My abiding association with Margaret Ball is the books she "co-authored" with Anne McCaffrey back in the day, when McCaffrey was doing the "you write the book, I'll lend my name and help launch your career" deal with a number of young authors. (At least, I've always assumed that's how it worked.) She seemed to pick good writers, at least; except for a few very minor glitches, this book is impeccably written - something you couldn't always say of McCaffrey.

It's a spin-off from another series, with one of the minor characters being the main character of that series. Contemporary urban fantasy of a sort; magic exists, but is rare and not publicly known, and supernaturals are not everywhere as they are in most contemporary urban fantasy.

The specific magic here only works in a particular language, and has a cost for the spellcaster (headaches and possible brain injury). A notebook of words and phrases has made its way from a remote Central Asian location, the only place the language apparently is known, to America, and becomes a McGuffin in a struggle between a self-confessed slacker of a linguistics graduate and an unscrupulous tenured professor.

It's a well-told story, and entertaining. The main issue I have with it is that in a post-Me-Too world, the behaviour of Michael Ryan, the I-suppose-hero, comes off as creepy and intrusive; he hits on his young landlady (the slacker linguist) repeatedly, despite being almost as repeatedly rebuffed and even told that she hates him and he should leave immediately, and ends up basically forcing himself into her problems to help her solve them - something he's not a substantial amount of help with, for the most part.

There are a couple of what look like scanning glitches (capital I in place of lowercase l), which make me wonder if this recently-published ebook came from an older print edition, written in a time when that was just how male leads behaved. Regardless, it struck me as borderline at best. I'm also not a huge fan of slacker protagonists, as a class. Still, it managed to retain all four of the stars that I provisionally award any book that interests me enough to buy (adding or deducting as the content justifies). It's not a best-of-the-year book, but I would consider reading another in the same series or the related series.

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