Monday, 14 April 2014

Review: L. Ron Hubbard Presents Writers of the Future Volume 30

L. Ron Hubbard Presents Writers of the Future Volume 30
L. Ron Hubbard Presents Writers of the Future Volume 30 by Dave Wolverton

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I received this book via Netgalley from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

The Writers of the Future contest is held in high regard within the SFF field, largely because of the many fine writers who have had a boost to their early careers through it and the prominence of the judges (and despite its association with L. Ron Hubbard, of which more later). This volume contains some excellently-written stories, some of which weren't to my taste but were well done anyway.

I'll go through the contents in detail. We start with pages and pages of boosterism from past winners, judges etc., which I skipped. Dave Wolverton's introduction can probably be skipped, too, as it just says how good it is to be a judge and how great the stories are.

Each writer, including the editor and the other non-contestant contributors, is introduced with a long biography, written in the first person but clearly by the writer in most cases. Likewise, the illustrators get a similar introduction - they are competitors in the parallel Illustrators of the Future contest.

"Another Range of Mountains" by Megan E. O'Keefe is the first story, a moving tale of a woman who can scry using any reflective surface and see what it has reflected in the past. She's on the run, and gradually we find out why. This kind of gradual reveal is a feature of several of the stories in the collection, and works well to sustain reader interest. In this case, the crumbs of revelation are doled out between character action, which also keeps it interesting. A couple of issues, though: sometimes I couldn't figure out who was speaking (easily fixed with more dialog tags), and the author uses "leech" when she means "leach".

"Shifter" by Paul Eckheart surprised me with its ending. In fact, it surprised me with its everything. I was unclear on why someone who could become anyone he/she could imagine would become a poor black kid living in a housing project, though. Possibly to hide, though, if so, it wasn't clear from who or what. This one included the word "base" when it should have been "bass".

"Beneath the Surface of Two Kills" by Shauna O'Meara impressed me with its parallelism between two stories of hunting, one by a nature lover and one by a murderous stalker. It's another "gradual reveal" story, but the parallelism strengthens the gradual reveal even more.

"Artistic Presention" by L. Ron Hubbard is an odd piece, preceded by an odd and laudatory biography which presents Hubbard as being known "primarily as a writer", which isn't, of course, the case. The oddness of the piece appears in leaps of logic, and in sentences like "The less effort a person can confront, the more effect of effort he becomes," which may contain some sort of transcription error or could just be the kind of deliberately confusing sentence one finds in cult literature. (The piece's origin isn't mentioned, but I suspect Dianetics.) It's followed by a Hubbard short story from 1950, "Beyond All Weapons".

Now, from the viewpoint of the organisation that funds it, which owns the copyrights to Hubbard's works, the main purpose of the Writers of the Future contest is presumably to promote the Hubbard name. I'd suggest that this might be better served by not republishing pieces like this. I haven't read any other Hubbard, so I can't comment on his work overall, but this piece is an average story for 1950, on the cusp of the post-pulp era, at a time when other writers like C.L. Moore and Murray Leinster were already writing much deeper, more thoughtful stuff. There's a lot of "tell" and very little "show", the characters lack any depth and are mainly there to explain the ideas, there's casual sexism baked right in, and in short it's a fairly typical pulp story. The introduction makes much of the fact that it's the first fictional use of Einstein's time-dilation theory, so I suppose that somewhat invalidates my other criticism, that the story can only occur because the characters are monumentally ignorant of this now-well-known phenomenon. Among the fine contemporary stories in this volume, though, this piece looks like a rusty 1950s tractor set next to the latest in agricultural machinery.

"Animal" by Terry Madden is somewhat dystopian and, in a way, technopessimist, which isn't to my personal taste, but it's a fair enough exploration of the closeness of animal and human species and the importance of being able to interact with them.

"Rainbows for Other Days" by C. Stuart Hardwick is post-apocalyptic, again not a genre I enjoy, and also tragic. Setting aside the fact that I didn't care for it, it's well done.

"Giants at the End of the World" by Leena Likitalo was the first story in the volume that really got me comparing it to Forrest Gump's box of chocolates. It outlines a difficult journey ending in a realisation, which is a rather literal and linear use of the journey metaphor, and the realisation/resolution doesn't come for the viewpoint character but for another. This seldom works.

"...And Now Thirty" by contest judge Robert Silverberg is a reflection on the anthology series, including extensive quotations from Silverberg's similar pieces in earlier volumes. It includes a good bit of praise of L. Ron Hubbard and an extended section on how contest winners have gone on to great things.

"Carousel" by contest judge Orson Scott Card is a strange magical-realist story about what happens when the dead are resurrected and left on earth to interact with their families, but without passions or desires. It's not a good thing. The protagonist convinces God (who he accuses of having a "limited skill set") to try a different approach. There's an odd typo: "L. Ron" for "ticket".

"The Clouds in Her Eyes" by Liz Colter is another piece that seems to be techno-pessimistic, if I'm correct in interpreting the electricity-producing grubs as a metaphor of technology destroying the climate. It also involves a Chosen One, and a magical-realist ship sailing above the land, one that only the Chosen One can see. Again, not to my taste.

"What Moves the Sun and Other Stars" by K.C. Norton tells of a rescue from a bizarre prison comet. It's a traditional adventure story in structure, dressed in strange clothing, though it does explore (or at least raise) ideas of machine intelligence and emotion. The cyborg narrator is a bit inclined to hyperbole, describing a thousand years variously as "a hundred generations" and "a star's age". There's also the typo "a little father" for "a little further".

"Long Jump" by Oleg Kazantsev is another techno-pessimist tragedy that I disliked enough not to care how good it was.

"These Walls of Despair" by Anaea Lay, despite the title, is a much more hopeful story, complex, raising moral and ethical questions about emotion and its manipulation from its natural course. The idea of a profession of emotion chemists was well thought of and well handled.

"Synaptic Soup" by Val Lakey Lindahn is a short piece by an Illustrators of the Future judge, similar to Silverberg's in many ways.

"Robots Don't Cry" by Mike Resnick shows a master at work, one of the contest judges exhibiting the facility at taking readers on an emotional journey that has made him the most awarded person in history for short fiction.

"The Shaadi Exile" by Amanda Forrest starts with the premise of Indian brides sent by (relativistic, time-dilating) wormholes to other planets for arranged marriages and builds a beautiful human story around it.

"The Pushbike Legion" by Timothy Jordan is that rare thing, a post-apocalyptic story that I don't dislike. Perhaps it's the Britishness of it, combined with the hopeful ending.

"Memories Bleed Beneath the Mask" by Randy Henderson posits memory-transfer technology that enables knowledge to be passed - or rather moved - from one generation to the next. It works well enough as a story, but I felt there were better stories in the volume.

"A Word on the Art Direction" by Stephen Hickman, contest judge for Illustrators of the Future, is brief, but could be omitted without loss.

"The Year in the Contests" talks about how many past WOTF alumni did well in 2013.

Then we close with the rules of the contests and a couple of ads, one for the "towering masterwork of science fiction adventure" Battlefield Earth by L. Ron Hubbard, and one for a multi-volume deal on WOTF collections.

Overall, I enjoyed most of these stories, and I certainly learned something. They are stories of intimate human lives which focus on things of deep emotional importance, and the slow-reveal and parallelism techniques are ones I want to try in my own stories.

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Friday, 11 April 2014

Review: Ghost Hand

Ghost Hand
Ghost Hand by Ripley Patton

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I know the author slightly through social media and our shared membership of SpecFicNZ, so I've heard a lot from her about how people love this book and keep giving it rave reviews. I found that justified. It didn't meet my own five-star standard (which involves beautiful, not just competent, prose and insightful commentary on the human condition), but it's high up in the fours.

A large part of this is down to the characters. Far from being the usual tropes and stereotypes, they read as real people, and as real teenage people. The adults are not as fleshed out and three-dimensional, but as it's told from a teenager's viewpoint that's almost a feature.

The main (and viewpoint) character, in particular, is very strong. Olivia has a magical power, true, but what really makes her dangerous (including to herself) is her feisty attitude. She's not stupid, either, and is realistically emotionally adept - meaning that she does make mistakes, but she's able to learn from them.

Nobody is unrealistically perfect here. They all have flaws and conflicts, they all make errors of judgement. At the same time, I was left with the sense that they have what they need to rise above their mistakes and triumph.

Looking back on the plot, there's not a single clear through-line. The main character's goals keep changing as she deals with others' actions and the consequences of her own choices. That's not a flaw. Like the imperfections of the characters, it helps the story come to life and feel almost like a narrative of real events, rather than a predetermined plot which functions as a set of rails to send the characters down.

The prose is clean, well towards the competent end of the spectrum. There are some minor issues which I'll discuss with the author, but that's true of most books I read, and apart from a couple of Inigo Montoya words none of them are too significant. This indie book, in fact, has about the same number of errors as the Brandon Sanderson book I read recently from Macmillan, and the Sanderson ones are probably worse, disproving once again the generalisation that self-published books are necessarily inferior products.

A fine start to what looks like being a series worth following.

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Monday, 7 April 2014

Review: Balanced on the Blade's Edge

Balanced on the Blade's Edge
Balanced on the Blade's Edge by Lindsay Buroker

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Normally I give anything described as a "steampunk romance" a big swerve, because they tend to be silly and not very well written. However, with the Lindsay Buroker brand behind it, I was confident that this would be the opposite, and I was right. While I don't go to a Buroker book expecting literature, I do go to one expecting to be competently entertained, and that was absolutely the case here.

The "main character has magic, which is forbidden" trope is pretty well-worn by this time, but it works here. This isn't just paint-by-numbers, but a fresh combination of classic elements with a few new twists. The cocky flyboy who's exiled because he ignores protocol one time too many, the incompetently run, remote prison that can be reformed with some empathy and thought, even the quest for an enchanted sword, all these are given a polish and come out feeling new.

The romance itself avoided the excesses of the genre, and I found it believable. The characters actually were attractive people (not a beast and an idiot, as is so often the case), they weren't starry-eyed but their connection felt natural and real, and the backstory about why neither of them had found such a connection before was plausible.

There was plenty of action and tension, in which pragmatic characters danced on the crumbling edge of their competence under multiple pressures to succeed, a hallmark of Lindsay Buroker's style.

As usual with a novella, I did wish it had been a bit longer, in particular that we had got more of the story between the last chapter and the epilogue. I can see why that was left out, though, and it's a minor loss.

Overall, well up to this author's usual high standard.

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Review: Elantris

Elantris by Brandon Sanderson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've seen complaints that Brandon Sanderson writes generic epic fantasy, and I've never understood them. Take this book, for example.

A magical city has malfunctioned for unknown reasons, and instead of being like demigods, its inhabitants are now undead lepers. Anyone in the country can be taken by the transformation that makes them an Elantrian, and near the beginning of the book the Crown Prince is so afflicted. Refusing to lie down and degenerate into mindlessness, he rallies the hopeless inhabitants of the city and gives them pride and a purpose. (I particularly liked the way in which he recruited an old cleaner and treated him with dignity, as a man who could transform the filthy city into a more pleasant place to live.)

Meanwhile, his fiancee (who has never met him; it's a political marriage, but with some hope of love) arrives from the allied country where she is a princess, to find that her betrothed is reported as dead and a third country is about to launch an invasion, spearheaded by their fanatical religion. Highly intelligent and competent, she determines to improve the lot of the local peasantry, rally the fading resistance that was started by the Crown Prince to his father's misrule, and keep the fanatics from taking over.

Oh, and they can talk over long distances using magical floating spheres, which appear to be AIs.

From there, we get plot twist after plot twist, plenty of dramatic irony, many, many things that aren't as they seem, love, loyalty, devotion, shifting allegiances, betrayal, tension, last-minute escapes, the slow reveal of a remarkable magic system... This is what I've come to expect from a Brandon Sanderson story, having read the first two Mistborn books.

Now, right at the end there were a couple of twists and shifts that I wasn't totally convinced by. Avoiding spoilers, let's say that the motivation of a couple of characters boiled down to love, and I didn't really buy it given everything else we'd seen from those characters. I thought that their belief systems would have been adequate motivation by themselves. Anyway, apart from that minor quibble, I thoroughly enjoyed this.

The editing had a few glitches, mainly that italics were applied to whole paragraphs where they should have only been used for the characters' thoughts, not the dialog tags and description as well. There were the usual minor typos that creep in, but nothing major or dramatic.


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Monday, 31 March 2014

Review: Thieftaker

Thieftaker by D.B. Jackson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I heard the author of this book interviewed on a podcast (I forget which one), and it sounded interesting: an urban fantasy set in pre-revolutionary Boston. It's certainly different from the usual, and I enjoyed it, but it does suffer from an excess of research in some areas and an apparent shortage in another.

Let's play the trope-spotting game first. We have the "protagonist has magic in a society where magic is forbidden" trope. That's usually an eye-roller for me (it's Standard Fantasy Plot #3), but because it's only one element here, rather than a large slice of the premise, I give it a pass.

Actually, saying that magic is "forbidden" is a bit strong. It appears that magic is about as forbidden as, say, prostitution: it's disapproved of, respectable people don't like to talk about it, the church opposes it, and under some circumstances you will be arrested for it, since it's technically illegal (though you're unlikely to ever be burned for prostitution, and that is a possibility for "conjurers"), but most of the time people uncomfortably look the other way. This set up a situation in which the possibility of being revealed as a "witch" was a threat that kept being used against the protagonist, but it never seemed as if it was going to be a real problem. (Also, why use "conjurer" as a name for a user of real magic? It seems odd.)

Trope number two comes from the noir detective story: the protagonist gets beaten up, a lot, in the course of his inquiries. The official police are both corrupt and incompetent, and are more of a threat than a help to his investigation; his professional rival, though, is responsible for most of the beatings (and, incidentally, most of the crimes she claims to solve).

The protagonist is also overmatched by a more powerful opponent, and only determination and cleverness enable him to stand up against the antagonist at all, but that's a trope I thoroughly enjoy, so I approve of it.

Other than that, the story wasn't too troperific. Magic has a cost, which is something I like to see. The mystery pace is good: not too drawn out, with progress always being made, but also not too quick and easy. The main character has a Tragic Past (which isn't fully gone into, and at the end of the book we still don't know the full circumstances of his fall), and it makes him empathetic and sets him up with a lost love and a full bundle of regrets. This helps him to be a fully rounded character, with contradictions and weaknesses as well as strengths. I liked him by the end, although there were moments when I didn't in the course of the story.

The minor characters are less fleshed out, but play their roles effectively and aren't simply cardboard cutouts. I got a sense of individuality from them, because they have characteristics which aren't just there because of the roles they play in the story or in the hero's life.

The problem is their names. I'm picky about names, and pay a lot of attention to them. Among the secondary characters that we meet early on are Kannice Lester, Devren Jervis (known as Diver), and Kelf Fingarin, which sound like made-up fantasy names to me, not names you'd encounter in eighteenth-century Boston. The author's note at the end reveals that he initially set the story in a secondary world, and I wonder if these names are left over from an early draft that wasn't in eighteenth-century Boston at all.

The first murder victim (at least, the first we encounter) is called Jennifer, a common name now, but very uncommon before it appeared in George Bernard Shaw's 1906 play The Doctor's Dilemma. I'm not saying a eighteenth-century Bostonian couldn't have been named Jennifer, but it's pretty unlikely unless her family were Cornish, and their surname, Berson, is German. I suppose the mother could have been Cornish, though.

So the research behind the names may not be up to the level of the historical and geographical research, which is, to be frank, at flood level sometimes. I appreciate a book set in a historical period which has a genuine sense of the time, but very few authors, having spent a lot of effort hauling water from the research well, are able to hold back from making the reader drink from the bucket. This author is not always one of those self-restrained authors.

That's a minor annoyance, though, in what is, overall, a well-written, well-edited, original and different book with a protagonist who I would follow through a series. It isn't my new favourite, but it's a worthy entry into the urban fantasy (and historical fantasy) field.

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Monday, 24 March 2014

Review: Orison

Orison by Daniel Swensen

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is sword-and-sorcery done right.

Not only is the writing and editing almost flawless, the plotting, the character development and the worldbuilding are all at a very high standard. I seldom see a book this good.

Set in a grim world, but not grimdark, it's the story of hapless lowlifes doing the right thing, largely because of their friendship with each other, at personal cost. There's tragedy, but it's not all tragedy. (In fact, there are some wonderful wry comic moments in the dialogue, especially between the mage and the warrior.)

The characters have depth, and there are things they care about and will fight for. They're proactive and largely self-rescuing.

The world is the creation of powerful, arbitrary, even malevolent dragon-gods (and how cool is that?) who continue to interfere for their own amusement and to advance their inexplicable agendas, and against this seemingly hopeless backdrop the characters do the right thing anyway.

I normally only give five stars to books that have an extra layer of depth to them, that point outside themselves to deeper truths about the human condition, and/or those that are beautifully as well as competently written. Although the language here doesn't make it all the way to beautiful, it's certainly got the competent dial turned all the way up, and everything else is also so well done that I decided to award the fifth star - even before I worked out that this book does have something profound to say about the human condition and the perseverance of hope and friendship in the face of oppression.

I bought Orison because I'd seen several friends recommend it, and I wasn't at all disappointed. I recommend it very highly indeed.

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Thursday, 20 March 2014

Review: The Order Master

The Order Master
The Order Master by Brian Rush

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

(Disclaimer: I was a beta reader for this book, and know the author on social media. I received a free copy as a beta reader. The author also beta reads for me.)

What I most liked about this book is that it isn't constrained by convention. It's making use of the freedom that is indie publishing to not produce another clone of whatever's currently fashionable, to try something different, new and unexpected.

First of all, it's science fantasy. The aliens have advanced technology, but they also use magic - not "sufficiently advanced technology that's indistinguishable from magic" but actual magic. There are a few authors doing this blend of aliens and urban fantasy (Lindsay Buroker in [b:Torrent|18524705|Torrent (Rust & Relics, #1)|Lindsay Buroker||26228603] and Ilona Andrews in [b:Clean Sweep|19090384|Clean Sweep (Innkeeper Chronicles #1)|Ilona Andrews||21910727] being two I've read recently), but it's still unusual. It's a bold move, but I think it works.

Secondly, the story is, in many ways, morally uncomplicated. I need to put a lot of caveats around that, though. There's a torture scene, there's underage sex and a teenage girl who tries to seduce an adult man (having been abused by her father), and the main character is, technically, a serial killer. (However, he's killing evil aliens, and is unhappy about it.) Even the "good" aliens are manipulative and can be ruthless.

What I mean by "morally uncomplicated" is that there's not a lot of ambiguity about what the right choice is for the protagonist, even though there are drawbacks to it. That's fine; the story isn't about making a difficult choice, but about a risky alliance made against a clear threat. I did think that there could have been more ambiguity for longer about whether the "good" aliens were actually good, and that it would have added to the tension, but again, this is a choice the author is making regarding what his story is about. There's a group of aliens that are into power, torture and domination; there's another group of aliens that not only want to stop them but propose to do so by helping humans not be like that either. Put like that, why would you need to debate?

No, the story isn't about choices that are evenly balanced, but choices that involve risk and danger. It's old-fashioned heroism. At the same time, there's enough modern (or maybe postmodern) awareness of moral ambiguity and messiness in the book that readers may stumble over the clarity of the good/bad divide in a way that they wouldn't in a work that never alluded to that messiness. We only wonder about the black-and-white nature of the two sides at all because there are passages of philosophical, political and religious reflection that question traditional black-and-white ideas.

This isn't a book of philosophy, though, any more than it's about difficult moral choices. There's plenty of action, well described, and the plot moves along swiftly. It's also one of the best-edited books I've ever beta read. I spotted only a few minor errors, which I, of course, passed on to the author, and which I believe he's fixed. There are plenty of books coming out from traditional publishers that aren't this clean, and they aren't this original, either.

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