Monday, 6 July 2020

Review: Captain Moxley and the Embers of the Empire

Captain Moxley and the Embers of the Empire Captain Moxley and the Embers of the Empire by Dan Hanks
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is basically what you would get if an author said to himself, "I would love a highly cinematic, almost video-game-like pulp novel set in the 1950s, but with a female protagonist who's a former Spitfire pilot and woke about colonialism. I should write one."

If you're up for that - and don't mind some deaths of innocents, quite a bit of swearing, a protagonist who's cynical and world-weary but also carries on when injured to a ridiculous degree, highly unrealistic temples full of traps that are fully functional despite their great age, and a number of small anachronisms - this is the book for you.

Personally, I do mind those things, though, which lost the book a star. The temple-traps thing is a trope of the genre, I suppose, and normally I give those a pass, but they really are over-the-top unbelievable.

I think I was predisposed to notice the other issues because of the names. I'm very aware of the fact that fashions in naming change a lot over time, which is something that not many people seem to be aware of - including many authors who set their stories in a historical period. Here we have Samantha, for example, born in the 1920s, and named after an 18th-century French woman - but Samantha was a very rare name indeed until Bewitched made it popular in the 60s. Her sister, born about 1930, is Jessica, also a rare name until a couple of years before the story is set (1952). It even bothered me slightly that Jessica's friend William was known as Will (as he would be today) rather than Bill (as he would more likely be mid-century). Most people are not going to notice these, or other anachronisms and setting details that made no sense for where they were, but I did, and it wore away at my enjoyment of the book and predisposed me to disbelieve some of the more unlikely plot points.

Because I read a pre-publication version via Netgalley, I'm not mentioning examples which are likely to change by publication; I'm focusing on things like the characters' names, and the protagonist's ex-military rank - which she insists on, and which is part of the book's title. "Captain" is not and has never been a rank in the RAF, which 30 seconds with Google will confirm.

Of course, there weren't any women flying Spitfires in combat in WW II either, but I'm willing to put that in the same category as the ancient Atlantean magic: part of the setup for the plot, a necessary counterfactual. If you want people to buy into the big counterfactuals, though, it serves you well to do your research and make all the small details believable, so that people aren't wasting their suspension of disbelief on things that don't matter.

Leaving all that aside, there's plenty of cinematic action in varied locales to carry you through the story, if you're not thrown out of it by things that are hard to swallow (like a character who is specifically not a badass briefly becoming one for plot purposes). The ending is not a cliffhanger, as such, but it does take a left turn leading straight into setting up a sequel, and for me it was a downer, almost an anticlimax in a way.

I won't be reading that sequel. But plenty of people will probably love this and follow the series on through.

tl;dr: Not for me, might be for you.

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Friday, 3 July 2020

Review: Rediscovery: Science Fiction by Women (1958 to 1963): Yesterday's Luminaries Introduced by Today's Rising Stars

Rediscovery: Science Fiction by Women (1958 to 1963): Yesterday's Luminaries Introduced by Today's Rising Stars Rediscovery: Science Fiction by Women (1958 to 1963): Yesterday's Luminaries Introduced by Today's Rising Stars by Gideon Marcus
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This reminded me very much of The Feminine Future: Early Science Fiction by Women Writers , in that it reintroduces us to excellent stories by writers who are mostly, undeservedly, forgotten today. The other book has an earlier timeframe (1873 to 1930), and there are some clear differences. The women of that earlier time were mostly writing male points of view, sometimes under male names; by the late 1950s, when Rediscovery kicks off, women were still sometimes writing under male or ambiguous names (as indeed they are today), but a lot of their stories were from a female viewpoint.

It also reminded me a little of stories I've read by male authors in the same period, in that a lot of the stories assume that men are inherently this way and women are inherently that way, and the sexes are at war, and there will never be peace or alliance between them; they're too different. However far we still have to go, the intervening three generations have, at least, made progress in both of those respects; we recognize a much wider (and much more overlapping) range of ways of being for both men and women, and, while, as I say, there's still plenty of room for improvement, men and women are now able to be friends, allies, and colleagues while also being or not being lovers. Here, though, we see the early stirrings of modern feminism, when men (rather than patriarchy) were still seen as the problem, and a hard problem at that - perhaps insoluble.

Not every story is like that, though (and, don't get me wrong, the ones that are like that are still fine stories with a strong impact). Some of them are just really good stories of their time; some would stand up well if first published today, though there are a few that lean a bit too heavily on the tropes (and social assumptions) of the period to have aged well. They often take those tropes in a new and interesting direction, though.

One unfortunate thing, and I will mention it even though I read a review copy from Netgalley, because I know the book's been out for a while and assume I got the published version. Stories of the pre-digital age are usually reprinted by being scanned and having optical character recognition run over them, and despite being in use for more than 25 years, this technology is still not always accurate in its transcriptions and tends to produce typos. Some of them were easy to miss (some of them, no doubt, I did miss), but about half of the ones I noticed could have been caught with spellcheck. I don't know why people use OCR and then don't spellcheck. (Getting a machine to read it aloud while you read along would also be a good means of avoiding these issues, if you had the time.)

This doesn't detract much, though, from what is a fine collection of stories that should be more widely known. They are unpredictable, emotionally powerful, thoughtful, humane, and excellently crafted. As the editor's introduction notes, because of the prejudice against women that existed in the SFF field at the time, a woman had to be that much better to compete, and these women are fine writers who are long overdue to be rediscovered.

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Sunday, 28 June 2020

Review: Nucleation

Nucleation Nucleation by Kimberly Unger
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I found this gripping, a well-plotted nearish-future mystery in which the SF setting is integral.

Not your usual space opera, though large portions take place in space. Not your usual cyberpunk either, exactly. I mean, there's an evil corporation, but it's not the one the protagonist works for (that corporation is just kind of big and dumb but on the whole doing the right-ish thing, like real corporations, in my experience). And there's quite a bit of time spent, not in virtual reality, but embodied in remote robots using quantum entanglement, which was cool, even if I didn't completely buy every aspect of it all the time. At one point, there's only a single channel to use to the remote location, so the other characters are unable to communicate with the operator. Because her consciousness is so totally embodied in the remote that speaking to her through headphones wouldn't work; she wouldn't be able to hear them. That, to me, was implausible, though generally I found it easy to suspend my disbelief. There was a little bit of "your consciousness is so involved in the technological situation that a glitch in the tech can be dangerous to your brain," which I usually find hard to swallow, but here it was sold better than usual.

There are two mysteries. One is who the local bad actors are and what their deal is, and the other is: what, exactly, did the protagonist meet out there in space in the first chapter? Both of these mysteries progress through gradual revelation. I have to say, as an experienced consumer of fiction I found the foreshadowing a bit obvious, and was well ahead of the protagonist when it came to figuring out what was going on, particularly with the Earth-based mystery. But that's tricky to avoid, and I didn't feel it was done badly.

The writing mechanics are generally good, except that the author has a terrible comma-splicing habit and a tendency to hyphenate things she shouldn't, and uses all-caps instead of italics for emphasis. There are occasional errors of reference (pronouns not referring to what they should refer to, dangling modifiers). The pre-release version I saw from Netgalley also featured quite a few words dropped out of sentences (or left in after editing), some mispunctuated dialog, and some misplaced or missing apostrophes, but hopefully those will be fixed by publication. The quantity of all of these is not overwhelming, and a thorough edit would soon have it in good shape.

The characters are not nearly as hopeless, aimless, or alienated as is often the case with SF set in the relatively near future; the protagonist has a strong personal reason (eventually, more than one) to get to the bottom of the mystery, and it provides good direction and momentum to the plot.

Overall, a very decent SF suspense story, with a fresh premise well executed. I would read a sequel, and I'll look for more from this author.

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Wednesday, 24 June 2020

Review: The Green Door

The Green Door The Green Door by Heather Kindt
My rating: 0 of 5 stars

DNF at 30%, for a number of reasons.

1. The punctuation is by Jackson Pollock, and there are quite a few other issues too (missing past perfect tense, homonym errors/eggcorns as basic as "your/you're"). Even an excellent editor would struggle to polish out all of them.

2. The worldbuilding is inconsistent. Of the talking animals, the cat is specifically stated to have no opposable thumbs - yet is somehow an herbalist - but the badgers and warthogs can shoot bows with great accuracy and no apparent issues. Somebody must have made the cat-sized clothes, so some of these animals can use sewing needles... it's not thought through.

3. The characters are showing strong signs of being Spoiled Protagonists, handed trust and help they haven't earned by people they've just met, who have no reason to give it to them except that they're the protagonists.

4. Apart from that, it's fairly average YA. Where I stopped, cliche was looming in the form of probably a love triangle.

No rating because DNF, but DNF because I could see it was going to be three stars.

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Wednesday, 17 June 2020

Review: Annihilation Aria

Annihilation Aria Annihilation Aria by Michael R. Underwood
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I decided to give this author another chance, even though the previous book of his I'd reviewed ( Celebromancy ) had significant issues, because it also had signs of potential. He's written a number of books since then, and authors generally do improve with practice.

I gave that previous book three stars because, to me, the negatives and the positives balanced each other out. I considered advancing this one to four stars, because despite the fact that the same issues are still there, I did end up enjoying it towards the end, and there's still a lot of good stuff. But ultimately I decided that it doesn't quite make it to four stars. It's a higher three than Celebromancy, though.

It's frustrating to read a book by an author who clearly has some ability, but hasn't polished the book to be all it could be. I felt this with some of Max Gladstone's early novels, which showed tremendous imagination let down by some basic weaknesses. This book has the same problem, though it's not as vividly imaginative as Gladstone's.

There are some strengths, definitely. The biggest one for me was the fact that the main antagonist gets a viewpoint and becomes a relatable character; he's caught up in the system just as much as anyone. Even if he has a position of privilege relative to the protagonists, he's at the bottom of the heap as far as his own people are concerned. He really just wants to go home and be with his family. This was well done, and if everything else about the book had been at or near the same level, it could have been knocking on the door of five stars.

But it wasn't. I noted in my review of Celebromancy that it was full of continuity issues. That seems to be a problem for this author, because this book is riddled with them too. I read a pre-release version from Netgalley, and there's at least a slim chance that some will be fixed before publication (a little over a month away as I write), but they are numerous and pervasive, especially early on. A bit of exposition is given twice. A decisive moment in a scene happens twice. A character returning to Genos, the destroyed planet of her ancestors, wonders if she's the first of her people ever to do so, because "no stories of those returns survived in the diaspora", and then two pages later is reminiscing about multiple stories her mother told her of previous people who returned there.

The largest continuity issue, however, and the one that would be hardest to fix, because it leaves a plot hole regardless of which way you work it, is about the destruction of that planet. At the 58% mark, the nature of the planet-destroyer is revealed (I won't spoil that revelation here), and we're told that there were actually two weapons, one which destroyed the planet Atlan and was then hidden, and an inferior duplicate that was later used to destroy Genos because the Imperials didn't have access to the first one and had spent centuries coming up with an imitation. Later in the book, though, we're told that the same weapon was used to destroy both planets; it's part of what motivates a character.

Whichever version of the story you use, you have to explain why the Imperials don't still have the weapon used to destroy Genos (whether it's the original or the copy). And this isn't ever addressed. They just don't have the weapon.

Apart from the issues with continuity, and a remnant number of copy editing issues (vocabulary errors, apostrophe errors, mispunctuated dialog, dangling modifiers, lots of excess hyphens) which escaped despite the "meticulous" copy edits the author references in his acknowledgements and could possibly be fixed by publication time, there are other weaknesses which dropped the rating for me. The author also acknowledges an editor who pushed him; I don't think she pushed him hard enough, because a lot of the book is just bland. The worldbuilding is mostly bland, standard space opera stuff. The characters are bland, and there's not much to them that doesn't come either from their archetypes or their specific roles in the plot. The language is bland, unremarkable except where it glitches.

The author mentions at the end that the inspiration for the book was the movie Guardians of the Galaxy. But to me, a lot of what made Guardians of the Galaxy enjoyable is missing. It's not over the top; there are some sensawunda moments, but they're generic and, to me, forgettable. The characters are not a set of damaged loners who bicker and fight their way to eventual cohesion as a team in the face of a threat that brings out the best in their previously grungy characters; they're already a team at the start. The married couple (we're told repeatedly and shown occasionally) are devoted to one another. They only really have one argument in the entire book, which seems to be there to raise the tension during the only time they're separated, in a well-worn trope. They get on well with their pilot, too. They all have difficult backstories, which are all more to do with belonging to oppressed peoples than anything specific to them as individuals, but they seem to have coped well with their challenges and become functional adults. Which is great, but it's nothing like Guardians.

And the so-called "banter"; on a scale of zero to Whedon, it would barely shift the needle on the bantermeter. It's notably weak.

A few pop culture references are there, but they're more influences from earlier stories, and things like the female tomb raider of the couple being named Lhara. I don't know if John Carter was a conscious influence on Max (sole Earth-human character provided for means of audience identification, transported to space locale by mysterious means - in Max's case, an unexpected, one-way and apparently unique teleportation device discovered on an archaeological dig in Atlantean/ancient-alien ruins), but that's who he reminded me of. Though he's not a fighter at all, but very much an academic who leaves the fighting to his warrior wife.

I prefer it that these influences are subtle, but I'd also like to see something different, something fresh, done with them. The worst features of space opera are here: ridiculously short travel times (at one point, an interstellar trip that is specifically being made not in "warp space" takes 20 days; at another point, a distance specifically described as "light years" is going to be covered in hours, also outside warp space), lasers knock a ship into a spin, and gravity, when wielded as a weapon, is, apparently, purple and silver for cinematic purposes. Giant space turtles (with flippers, whatever those would do) drift on solar winds but cover interstellar distances also in compressed timeframes. But it doesn't have the zest and zing of, say, Tim Pratt's space operas, or - again - Guardians of the Galaxy. It's all pretty much by the numbers, except when it stumbles or fumbles.

Overall, then, while I can still see unrealized potential that could be brought out with more work and focus, this book fell short for me, and doesn't inspire me to read a sequel or others of the author's works.

I received a copy via Netgalley for review.

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Friday, 29 May 2020

Review: Kitra

Kitra Kitra by Gideon Marcus
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Initially, I couldn't help comparing this with my friend Lisa Cohen's Derelict . Youthful crew, led by a young woman, take off in an old military ship and find there's an issue with it that sends it off into space; they have to work together to get home.

It's not very similar to Derelict apart from that premise, though. The Derelict crew don't intend to be a crew, and have a lot more personal and interpersonal issues. Their biggest challenge in getting home is learning to work as a team, not just the bare fact of the situation itself. And the gender distribution of roles is different: in Derelict, the young woman who leads the crew is also an engineer, and the biologist is male, whereas here the technical work is done by the men and the biology (but also the captaining) is done by the women.

The other space opera that this reminds me of is The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet , because the crew is much more at that end of the at-each-other's-throats/working-together-as-a-team spectrum. It isn't as quirky, though, and there's a bit more of a plot.

Kitra gets big points from me for one thing in particular: fuel. In so many space operas, the issue of fuel is completely ignored. The rag-tag crew of outcasts in their battered old spacecraft fly hither and yon around solar systems in remarkably short amounts of time, repeatedly landing on planets and taking off again, and they never seem to need to refuel. That's not the case here; in fact, a shortage of fuel is a major plot driver. I did question whether the capacitors were realistic in terms of energy storage density, but I'm willing to give that a pass, given how well the rest of the story was written.

There are moments of triumph, moments of despair, interpersonal moments (though the flirting never comes to anything), moments of brilliant solutions to seemingly intractable problems, moments of courage in the face of the odds. It's emotionally satisfying without being (too) scientifically implausible. I found it well paced, too, with a good mixture of "everything is going great, we're going to achieve our dreams" and "oh, crap, we're all going to die".

Recommended, and I will be watching for more in the series.

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Monday, 25 May 2020

Review: Haunted Heroine

Haunted Heroine Haunted Heroine by Sarah Kuhn
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read and very much enjoyed the first in the series, and although I haven't read the second and third, I had no trouble following this one.

I noted about the first book that all the characters have a lot of issues, but they are, at least, mostly aware of them and committed to working on them. Three books further on, they've clearly done a lot of that, but there's still work to do, and Evie working on her issues is in fact the central focus of this book.

Although it's technically a supers book, if you're after old-school superpowered battles and banter and costumes this is not the place to look for it. There's a bit of each of those (especially costumes, though largely of the Halloween variety), but it's more a character-driven than a plot-driven book. There's definitely a plot - a mystery plot, in fact - but the important part is not so much solving the mystery as how the process of working on solving the mystery is also a process of Evie dealing with issues from her past, and Evie (and others under her mentorship) learning to be confident, appropriately angry, and self-nurturing.

Most of these people are young women of colour, and I am none of those three things; I suspect if I was, the book would get a fifth star. I didn't find it preachy or too much of a performance of contemporary expected opinions; it came across as authentic, and I'm sure will be very powerful for its intended audience. I also didn't object to the portrayal of the privileged, entitled white guy; he's a type that exists, in distressingly large numbers. I've read books by him, in fact, though these days I try not to.

Overall, recommended, including for people who are not dead centre of its target demographic, because I think we all need to hear these conversations being had - even if our contribution to them is to shut up and listen for a change.

I received a review copy via Netgalley.

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