Thursday, 11 October 2018

Review: The Iron Codex

The Iron Codex The Iron Codex by David Mack
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Darker than I usually prefer, but done well enough that I still enjoyed it. The characters have some depth beyond "I suffer because of my bad decisions, and also the world sucks!" (though both of those things are true), and the mashup of 1950s spy thriller and ceremonial magic(k) works well.

None of the characters are unambiguously noble, but they do (ultimately) persevere to pursue an unselfish goal at personal cost against powerful opposition, despite being embedded in corrupt systems. I like that kind of story.

At the beginning, the five different viewpoints of seemingly unconnected characters in different parts of the world started to seem a bit much, but I kept going on the assumption that they would eventually connect up, which they did.

I did find the two female characters, and for that matter the two MI6 agents, a bit hard to tell apart for a while.

On the whole, though, this book offers plenty of excitement, lots of wizards, and high stakes, and when I'm in the mood for that kind of book, I like to find one as good as this.

I received a pre-publication copy from Netgalley for purposes of review.

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Sunday, 7 October 2018

Review: Sourdough

Sourdough Sourdough by Robin Sloan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I started reading Robin Sloan when i09 featured Mister Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore on a list of the best science fiction and fantasy for the year it came out. I remarked in my review of that book that it wasn't really SFF, and this one is even less so - except that it does play off the science-fictional nature of our present day, and there is a mysterious ancient culture (in the microbial sense) from a mysterious ancient culture (in the human sense) that seems both mystical and science-fictional.

It's definitely spec-fic-adjacent, at least, and it could comfortably fit into the literary category as well; there's plenty of interiority from the main character, Lois (who narrates the story), and lots of witty or insightful reflection on life, on culture (in a number of senses), on connection and belonging, the place of work in human life, our relationship with microbes, our relationship with technology, our individual and collective relationship with food...

It's a wise book, and also a kind and humane one. Robin Sloan writes like a gentler and less tragic George Saunders, another literary writer who often introduces speculative elements, and brings out the humanity and dignity of his characters with a richness of insight and respect. The most spec-fic thing about Sourdough, or perhaps the least literary, is not the set dressing, but the plot; rather than the decline of an alienated character from helplessness to hopelessness, in the currently fashionable literary mode, it shows us a motivated protagonist learning and growing as she deals with a dynamic situation and makes connections with other people, reducing her alienation and replacing it with a sense of purpose and significance.

Lois - a millenial in a Bay Area robotics startup that claims to be about eliminating tedious work for humans, but is attempting to achieve this by working its employees half to death - is gifted with a sourdough starter by immigrant brothers whose visa has expired. They belong to a mysterious culture known as the Mazg, which has remained hidden among other people in Europe for so long that their origins are myths even to them, and the starter is part of their heritage. As she learns to bake bread and becomes a part of the groundbreaking Marrow Market, located in a former US military base on Alameida Island, she also learns to be happy and discovers what matters to her.

My only complaint about Mister Penumbra was that ultimately the resolution didn't quite hold together in terms of believability for me, and I was watching for similar problems here. I didn't find anything, apart from the fact that Lois employs a $40,000 robot to do work that a $2000 baker's mixer could have done just as well, but even that is somewhat justified in the slightly surreal world which she inhabits. It's full of eccentric and well-drawn characters, and telling moments of delight, humour, and poignancy. As with Penumbra, the author blends reality and fiction so well that I wasn't always sure which was which; I was surprised to discover that Lois Clubs are a real thing.

This is a gem of a book, warm, beautifully crafted, and deep, and I will be surprised if I read a better one this year.

I listened to the audio version, which I thoroughly recommend. The narrator does a great job of bringing us Lois's authentic voice, hitting every sentence exactly right, and adding to the already considerable pleasure I got from the prose.

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Sunday, 30 September 2018

Review: The Shadow Revolution

The Shadow Revolution The Shadow Revolution by Clay Griffith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A promising start to a series which advertises itself as "Victorian urban fantasy"; it's not that steampunky, though there is a steam-powered motorcycle, but if you love steampunk this may also appeal to you.

The characters are vivid and individual enough that I didn't feel I'd read it all before. The editing, while certainly not flawless, is mostly decent.

There is one trope that I particularly dislike in this type of book (PNR, urban fantasy, steampunk, or period adventure romance, take your pick): the heroine gets captured by the villain and has to be rescued by the hero. That trope occurs here, but it's subverted just enough that the authors (for me) get away with it; for one thing, she wasn't captured because she did something idiotic, and she remains as effectual as one reasonably could while in that situation.

While there are hints of romance, there's nothing overt yet, so I imagine there'll be a relatively slow burn through the rest of the series, and while that's a visible thread, it isn't front and centre. The A plot is definitely thwarting the plans of the villain and defeating the werewolves, and it's done with a combination of good fight scenes, clever magic, bravery, and determination on the part of the characters. The main characters change and develop, and in general it's a well-crafted book.

The next one is a bit expensive for my blood, so I will put it on my Await Ebook Price Drop wishlist and wait. They're good, but they're not so amazing I'll pay twice what I usually do.

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Review: They Promised Me the Gun Wasn't Loaded

They Promised Me the Gun Wasn't Loaded They Promised Me the Gun Wasn't Loaded by James Alan Gardner
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoyed the first in this series very much; this one a bit less, primarily because of the main character. It was very skillfully done, though, and entertaining.

It needed to be skillful, because the author saddled himself with some drawbacks. His characters are all excessively powerful, with several unrelated superpowers, each of which on its own would be enough for many superheroes. The main character of this book, Jools, is "human maximum" in any ability you can name (with exceptions I'll note in a moment); has some sort of internet connection in her head that feeds her detailed knowledge of basically anything that's publicly online (including, oddly, the time and location of a secret party that certainly is not public knowledge); and her body regenerates, Wolverine-style.

I said there were some exceptions to her "maximum human ability" thing. Someone that powerful needs flaws, and Jools' flaw is that she's not the human maximum in wisdom, self-control, or for that matter likeability; in those areas, she's about average for a college-age alcoholic hockey player. In D&D terms, her intelligence, dexterity, strength, constitution and even (in certain circumstances) charisma may all be 18, but her wisdom is somewhere around six.

She is, at least, self-aware about it, and does get an arc, which rescued the book for me. In the meantime, I was kept entertained by observations such as "it’s like stashing matter and antimatter in the same suppository. Hilarity ensues," or (from one of her also-superpowered roommates, a chemistry major) "Biology is only chemistry that thinks it’s special."

A less skilled writer, working with such a character (both overpowered and annoyingly flawed at once), might have made all kinds of missteps, but Gardner pulls it off. His world, in which the ultra-rich have become literal vampires, werewolves, and demons, and superheroes known as "sparks" are gifted with powers by the Light to keep them more or less honest, continues to be entertaining, the plot is action-packed without being a bunch of stupid fights for the sake of it, and while Jools teeters on the edge of "annoyingly angsty screw-up" a few times, she does manage to tilt over to the heroic side by the end.

It seems that this series is going to get one book entirely from the point of view of each of the four roommates, which means that there's not a lot of insight into the others' heads (though that may change when we reach the telepath, I suppose). The other roommates risked becoming cyphers in Jools' somewhat self-absorbed world, even Kim/K/Zircon, who was the narrator of the first book. The whole may end up more than the sum of its parts, though, and I'll definitely be watching eagerly for the next one.

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Saturday, 22 September 2018

Review: The Librarians and the Pot of Gold

The Librarians and the Pot of Gold The Librarians and the Pot of Gold by Greg Cox
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is entertaining, and it does what I expected it to do; it's reasonably faithful to the TV series - which is cheesy, but in a way I mostly enjoy - and tells an enjoyable story in a brisk, old-fashioned pulpy style.

By "old-fashioned" I mean that it's adjective-heavy, and has a tendency to "said bookisms" (people "exposit" and "react" rather than just saying things). Some of the sentences, at least in the pre-publication version I read from Netgalley, are long and meandering, and there are a few glaring anachronisms; most notably, the leprechaun in the fifth century is already wearing traditional 18th-century Irish garb, and playing a fiddle (invented more than a thousand years later). There are signs, too, of the writing being done in a hurry, which hopefully will be fixed before publication.

Don't expect literature. Do expect pretty much what you'd get from an episode of the show.

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Sunday, 16 September 2018

Review: The Thief Who Spat In Luck's Good Eye

The Thief Who Spat In Luck's Good Eye The Thief Who Spat In Luck's Good Eye by Michael McClung
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

So much suffering.

So many, many coordinate commas that don't belong (and more than a few typos, vocabulary stumbles, and other punctuation errors).

For both of the above reasons, I enjoyed this less than the first book in the series. It's still good - we still have a motivated protagonist in a dynamic situation, with plenty of skill, determination, and a strong desire to contain a powerful threat to innocents. Amra is a great character, and I'd watch her do her laundry, let alone take on dysfunctional gods and monsters.

I'll perhaps be a little slower to pick up book 3, though, given the amount of torture the author puts her through in this one. Certainly I want to see a character struggle, but as a matter of personal taste, I don't want to see her suffer for suffering's sake, or just to demonstrate how very dark the world is.

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Review: The Thief Who Spat In Luck's Good Eye

The Thief Who Spat In Luck's Good Eye The Thief Who Spat In Luck's Good Eye by Michael McClung
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

So much suffering.

So many, many coordinate commas that don't belong (and more than a few typos, vocabulary stumbles, and other punctuation errors).

For both of the above reasons, I enjoyed this less than the first book in the series. It's still good - we still have a motivated protagonist in a dynamic situation, with plenty of skill, determination, and a strong desire to contain a powerful threat to innocents. Amra is a great character, and I'd watch her do her laundry, let alone take on dysfunctional gods and monsters.

I'll perhaps be a little slower to pick up book 3, though, given the amount of torture the author puts her through in this one. Certainly I want to see a character struggle, but as a matter of personal taste, I don't want to see her suffer for suffering's sake, or just to demonstrate how very dark the world is.

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