Thursday, 18 January 2018

Review: Goldmayne: A Fairy Tale

Goldmayne: A Fairy Tale Goldmayne: A Fairy Tale by Kate Stradling
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the third book I've read by this author, and, unusually, I read them one after another. (The two Ruses books were the first two.) That argues that I enjoy her writing, and indeed I do.

It also makes me aware of patterns, though. The fact that all the characters hum when they're ambivalent about something. The habit of putting in an unnecessary comma after "Then" when it's the first word in a sentence. The occasional incorrect choice of vocabulary words. And two much larger flaws: passive main characters, and arrogant, annoying love interests.

It's a sound rule of thumb in writing that the viewpoint character should be the one who has the most at stake, the one who's most motivated and driven to solve the story problem, the one who's working hardest and sacrificing most, and often the one who's most competent to bring about a resolution. In all three of these books, though, the viewpoint character is not these things. They're resistant to taking action, not just at first, but almost throughout; they often have to be bullied into action by the arrogant, annoying love interest - and also, in the case of this book, by the talking animal sidekick, who is smarter and more capable than the theoretical hero, and for most of the book has more at stake.

The arrogant, annoying love interest is a trope of the romance genre, and one I've never liked. It's hard to identify with a character who's attracted to someone who I, in real life, would find extremely irritating and not especially attractive. It's also harder to identify with a character who's passive and not the one who takes decisive, effective action at key moments in the story.

I don't mind books that are written to a formula if it's a formula I like. If the formula has elements I don't like, it's usually a problem.

And yet I do enjoy these books. What would usually be fatal flaws are still drawbacks, to be sure, but not dealbreakers. I think this is because the books mostly read smoothly; the main characters, while often passive, are genuinely good-hearted; and there's a good amount of tension that ebbs and flows as it should.

I don't know that I'll read any more of these for a while. But this is an author I probably will come back to when I'm in the right mood.

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Monday, 15 January 2018

Review: Tournament of Ruses

Tournament of Ruses Tournament of Ruses by Kate Stradling
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

While this still makes it to four stars for being entertaining and enjoyable, it didn't impress me as much as the first in the series. (I bought the second as soon as I finished the first, which is not something I do all the time.)

First, the stakes in this book didn't seem nearly as high. In the first book, the kingdom's fate hung in the balance, but here it's mostly social stakes and some dangerous, but fairly easily defeated, attackers. Now, social stakes can feel just as urgent, in the right hands, but here I found myself thinking about the peasants who were being taxed so that all these flighty aristocrats could have extravagant parties, and thinking they were being ripped off.

Secondly, the main character wasn't nearly as strong. Viola, in the first book, is competent, sensible, determined, independent-minded, and willing to sacrifice herself in the right cause. Flora, in this book, while intelligent and sensible, is several times accused (with some justification) of being a bit spineless and just going along with things, and never actually commits that strongly to her duties; she always wants to give up and go back to her quiet country existence, even right near the end.

And third, the copy editing, which was decent with a few issues in the first book, is much shakier in this one. Lots of homonym errors and other vocabulary problems, plus a good many typos. The author can't make up her mind whether the street where the lords live is "Lords' Row" (which it should be) or "Lord's Row," and at one point has both on the same page. I've reported these to Amazon, and hopefully they'll be fixed soon.

All in all, though, enjoyable, and I've bought a third book by the same author, which is an important measure, for me, of how well a book has worked for me.

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Review: Kingdom of Ruses

Kingdom of Ruses Kingdom of Ruses by Kate Stradling
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An entertaining, light fantasy romance, with the romance as a strong B plot rather than the main event.

Suffers a little from a common drawback of romance (the male lead is actually arrogant and annoying, which makes it harder to believe that the pragmatic, capable heroine falls for him), and the heroine has to be rescued, but apart from that it holds together well. The fate of the kingdom is at stake, an extraordinarily long con is potentially about to be exposed, and in general a challenging time is had by all. I liked and admired most of the characters (apart from the villains, of course), and the central characters, in particular, ended up having some depth to them.

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Sunday, 31 December 2017

My Top 17 Books for 2017

It's time for my annual retrospective post on the best books I read in the previous year. Earlier instalments are here: my top 16 books for 2016 (actually only 15, I now realise), my top 15 books for 2015, and my top 14 books for 2014.

My total numbers are up a little from last year, with 85 books read instead of the 77 I read in 2016. Here are my figures in a table:

5 star 4 star 3 star 2 star Total
2017 10 56 19 0 85
2016 11 53 12 1 77
2015 11 68 19 2 101
2014 9 70 23 2 104

Once again, the bulk of the books I read 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 significantly lacking in their 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 didn't read any of those this year. I don't finish books I think are going to be one (or two) stars, and I don't rate books I don't finish.

I did give a couple of books three stars that I considered only giving two. I'll single out one of them, because of its win in the Science Fiction category of the Goodreads Choice awards: Andy Weir's Artemis (link is to my full review). I'm awarding this my Most Disappointing Book of 2017 special non-prize (which, of course, totally cancels out the Goodreads Choice win, right?)

I suspect that many of the people who voted for it don't read a lot of new SF, like Andy Weir himself; if you're looking for a pretty straight-up Heinlein homage, and can ignore the enormous plot hole at the end, it is amusing and clever in places, but as a piece of SF written in 2017 it failed for me at multiple levels. I won't be surprised if it gets on a certain group's slate for the next Hugos (if there is a slate this year), since it's sufficiently old-fashioned, sexist, and non-literary to appeal to their claque/clique. They'll probably forgive the fact that the protagonist is supposedly a Saudi woman, because her being Saudi makes no visible difference, and her being a woman is played entirely for the male gaze.

Anyway: this year's countdown. Links are to my Goodreads reviews. Superheroes, unusual detectives, genre mashups, determined young female protagonists, and refreshed tropes abound in this year's crop.

I'd like to start with a few honorable mentions. These were strong books that might well have made the top 17, but just had one thing that caused them to miss out. In no particular order:

The Thorn of Dentonhill, Marshall Ryan Maresca: if Batman were a magic student in a sword-and-sorcery city. Well-maintained tension, but let down by the copy editing (shame, Penguin, shame).

The Native Star, M.K. Hobson. Gaslight fantasy, strongly and competently plotted, though I thought the romance subplot was subpar.

Necrospect, J.B. Markes. A promising start to a series, with a necromancer detective and his determined young assistant. Reads as if English isn't the author's first language, though his biography suggests otherwise.

The Uploaded, Ferrett Steinmetz. A dystopian that I actually liked, which is a miraculous feat of writing; nothing wrong with it whatsoever, except that I passionately despise the genre, and even doing it extremely well wasn't enough to completely make up for that.

The Summoned Mage, Melissa McShane. Capable writing and excellent editing yielded an entertaining book, but it didn't quite have the depth to rise to five stars, and the diary conceit made the pacing uneven.

And now, the best of the 4-star books, the seven that almost made it across that 5-star threshold.

17. Weave a Circle Round, Kari Maaren. An engaging YA magical/mythical/time-travel story bursting with eccentric, complex characters.

16. Kalanon's Rising, Darian Smith. An ex-warrior physician/detective in a sword-and-sorcery city, with a twisty plot that ended up surprising me.

15. An Alchemy of Masks and Mirrors, Curtis Craddock. Skyships ply between floating continents and islands, and a determined, intelligent young woman sets out to bring a seemingly impossible peace.

14. Flotsam, R.J. Theodore. Another skyships-and-floating-islands book, with a crew of daring adventurers desperately opposing an alien invasion while dealing with their own considerable issues.

13. Abounding Might, Melissa McShane. An earlier book in the same series made last year's list, which makes me want to pick up the remaining one. Napoleonic military supers meet Regency romance, and kick its butt. In a good way.

12. Superhero Syndrome, Caryn Larrinaga. A fresh take on (modern-era) supers, with a determined protagonist battling crime and corruption with creativity and verve.

11. The Beautiful Ones, Silvia Moreno-Garcia. A glorious and well-earned ending caps this insightful, beautifully written, and moving book.

And now the top 10, all of them winning five stars. It was a tough fight here; there's not a lot to pick between most of them, especially the top five. On another day I might put them in a different order.

10. Uprooted, Naomi Novik. Full of spectacular magic, conflicts of moral purpose and personal connection, and complex and nuanced relationships.

9. All Those Explosions Were Someone Else's Fault, James Alan Garner. Another fresh take on the supers genre (with plenty of urban fantasy on the side), this offers a thrill-ride of tension and cool set-pieces that actually mean something, cleverly told in an appealing voice.

8. The Flaw in All Magic, Ben S. Dobson. Magicpunk in a secondary-world setting. With a great dynamic between the main characters, it manages to combine depth of characterisation and relentless action in an excellently crafted book.

7. The Wrong Stars, Tim Pratt. Refreshes the space opera genre with a dash of Mythos, and combines sparkling banter among a strong ensemble cast with fun, adventure, and a subtle meditation on the consequences of abuse.

6. Shadows of Self, Brandon Sanderson. Supers and slightly steampunked Western collide, injure each other physically and emotionally, make a wisecrack, and spring an astonishing twist, in a book of many well-crafted dimensions.

5. Heirs of Grace, Tim Pratt. Refreshes the tired urban fantasy/paranormal romance genre with a sensible, empathetic protagonist, and offers a terrific conclusion to a capable tale told with wit and originality.

4. The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, Patricia E. McKillip. Complex, mythopoeic, epic without needing an (on-stage) battle, and anchored in the depths of human psychology, this classic offers appealing wisdom and a magnificent ending.

3. Kismet, Watts Martin. The book you should read if you think that a novel about queer furries can't also be a well-executed, entertaining space opera with masterfully escalating stakes. It makes the political both personal and essential to the plot.

2. Dreadnaught, April Daniels. The book you should read if you think that a novel about a trans teenager can't also be a well-executed, exciting supers story with deep characterisation and a tense plot. Emotionally true and deep. 

1. The Philosopher's Flight, Tom Miller. The book you should read if you don't think a man with an MFA can write about a man trying to make his way in a world where women have more magic without making it cringeworthy and awful. World War I-era, more-or-less supers, but in a more realistic scenario where they serve mostly in transport, communications, rescue, and civil defence roles; I found the main character instantly appealing, and was often moved by his struggles, losses, and triumphs. (Note: won't be published until February 2018; I received an advance copy for review.)

Gender Breakdown

Out of interest, here's the author gender breakdown for my top lists over the past four years. I tend to read about 50:50 men and women, taken over the long term, without setting out specifically to do so (I had to look up the genders of several of this year's authors to calculate the table, which I've based on the information in their Goodreads profiles). My top lists do tend to feature more women than men, though, apparently.

Out of the 17 books on this year's list, 15 feature a determined young female protagonist (counting secondary protagonists in Shadows of Self, The Beautiful OnesThe Philosopher's Flight and The Flaw in All Magic); of the remaining two, Forgotten Beasts of Eld features a determined middle-aged female protagonist, and Kalanon's Rising has a couple of secondary female characters who hold their own very effectively. Of the honorable mentions, The Thorn of Dentonhill underutilises its sole female character, but even she is capable and competent; the rest have either female primary protagonists or (in the case of Uploaded) capable secondary female characters who make a strong impact on the plot. Heck, even Artemis has a female protagonist, though she's unconvincing and handled poorly.

Note that I messed up last year and actually only posted a top 15, not a top 16 as I'd intended.

M F Total
2017 8 9 17
2016 6 9 15
2015 10 5 15
2014 4 10 14
Total 29 33 62

I look forward to lots more good reading in 2018. Thanks to Netgalley, through which I received many of these books for review.

Thursday, 21 December 2017

Review: The Flaw in All Magic

The Flaw in All Magic The Flaw in All Magic by Ben S. Dobson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I think I found this by looking through the steampunk category on Amazon. It's more magepunk than steampunk, with magically driven engines and an airship lifted partly by spells; a steampunkish/dieselpunkish feel to the setting, but with lots of magic-as-technology and an assortment of fantasy races (elves, dwarves, gnomes, orcs, goblins, and so forth).

Because this is pretty close to what I often write myself, I read it with great interest. Because it's extremely well done, I also read it with great enjoyment.

The protagonist is a man without magical ability who was able to fool the magical university authorities for several years using a combination of sleight-of-hand and bluff, culminating in a dissertation which revealed his deception, and argued that only someone without magic could really understand it, because the flaw in all magic is the mage. Mages, being human(oid), are subject to error, and egotistical blindness to their own errors. (I was reminded of the flaws in computer programs introduced by programmers.) He's a rogue, but an ethical one, a little bit obsessive, and courageous when he needs to be.

His sidekick is a half-orc who has come to the island where magic is still freely practiced because she wants to see amazing sights. Her sense of awe and wonder is a beautifully handled part of her character, and asserts itself even when she's in great peril. She's a good-natured character, contrary to orc stereotypes, and despite the fact that she's experienced prejudice her whole life (her orcish relatives see her as too human, and everyone else sees her as too orcish). I enjoyed the fact that she was the muscle in the pair. It's a simple, even a common, trope-switch to make the woman the physically dangerous one, but the main character's easy acceptance of it without any discussion gained the book extra points with me.

Both characters are terrific, with enough backstory to feel real and sympathetic, introduced (like the worldbuilding) just when it's needed, and just as much as it's needed for the reader's understanding. Their collegial relationship is a joy to see, particularly since there's no attraction between them, but there is respect.

The plot is a mystery/thriller, with a locked-room murder (of someone who mattered to the protagonist); politics (including echoes of current real-world politics of the arrogant, regressive far-right sort); fights, pursuits, and edge-of-the-seat physical danger; and roguish cleverness. The pacing, I felt, was a good balance between keeping things constantly moving and not failing to pause for reflection.

On top of excellent editing, this all-around facility with the craft of writing helped push this into 5-star territory for me, and made this one of my favourite books this year. I'm very glad to have discovered another author who I can trust to tell a good story well.

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Thursday, 14 December 2017

Review: Wish

Wish Wish by D. L. Lewis
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The author is clearly in love with the semicolon, which is a wonderful punctuation mark. Unfortunately, almost all the cases in which she uses it should actually be commas.

The prose is otherwise competent, but stiff and formal, and the minor characters mostly consist of a single quirk - and often seem to be there only so that a more important character has someone to talk to.

The resolution seems hurried, and even lampshades the fact. It's therefore shorter than I was expecting.

It's far from being a bad book, but it has plenty of room for improvement.

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Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Review: The Continuum

The Continuum The Continuum by Wendy Nikel
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Disclaimers: Wendy Nikel and I are both members of the same writers' forum, but as far as I can remember we haven't interacted directly. I received a copy via Netgalley for review.

As I would expect, this is a well-crafted, competently-written book. Unfortunately, I felt it was lacking that extra spark that would take it from competence to excellence. The problem may have been that it was too short, with the character arcs and plot arcs resolving too quickly at the end, without enough middle in which they could be earned. Or it may have been that I somehow didn't find the characters' dilemmas visceral and compelling enough, or that the villains were a touch cartoonish, or that the relationships between characters were underdeveloped.

The time travel aspect is well handled, with a surprise ending (which could have had a bit more groundwork laid for it). However, I didn't fully believe that a man from 1912 could understand the workings of, and improve, a miniaturized electronic device, and since this was central to the plot that was a problem.

Enjoyable, and in places textbook (the escalation of the stakes, for example), but missing something vital to make it compelling for me.

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