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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Review: Sidekicks

Sidekicks Sidekicks by Arthur Mayor
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It's difficult to find a good supers book. I was in the mood for one, and looked at and discarded more than 30 before settling on this one. I'm glad I picked it up; it was well done, with a bit of depth to the main character, and not too trope-ridden given the genre. The supers are not obvious knockoffs of Marvel or DC characters, and a bit of thought has gone into their powers.

It was also better edited than the average superhero novel, though sadly that's a very low bar to clear. An editor is credited; I'm sure she caught a lot (by the nature of editing, the audience never sees what the editor caught), but she missed a lot of omitted vocative commas (the "let's eat Grandma" error), some vocabulary issues (homonyms and mangled expressions), a couple of apostrophe glitches, and a few other assorted minor problems. It wouldn't be hard to clean up to a high standard.

The setting is a dark and gritty city filled with urban blight, corruption, and supervillain-organized crime, in which a group of technically illegal vigilantes known as the Guard try to protect the innocent as best they can. Led by the Batman-esque Raptor (who, unlike Batman, does have superpowers, but like Batman is grim and rigidly disciplined), they put their sidekicks/apprentices through a rigorous training regimen and impose strict rules on them, including keeping them isolated from the wider superhero community.

This is a problem when the senior members of the Guard are ambushed and killed, leaving the sidekicks out of their depth, not knowing how to access key resources or any assistance from other supers, and (thanks to the strict rules of their mentors) not really knowing, or in some cases liking, each other very well at all.

There's a strong theme throughout of the main character, who only has a low level of superpowers, having to choose between sensible safety and doing the right thing, and he goes back and forth between the two choices. His first-person narration is filled with self-deprecating banter inadequately covering over terror; he goes through some very traumatic events on his way to a rousing conclusion (that then has doubt cast on it as an effective setup for a sequel).

The other members of his team, apart from Butterfly, who can go into a robotlike mental state in which she can calculate odds and angles with extreme accuracy, don't get much development. Flare is mostly angry, Peregrine mostly a tool (though the rivalry between him and the narrator, Raven, does shift towards a shaky alliance in the course of the book), and Ballista mostly vulnerable; Butterfly gets an arc, in which she struggles with an issue similar to, but sufficiently different from, the safety versus heroism issue Raven faces. Her robotic mindset is a refuge from the fear and horror she's feeling, but it takes away from her humanity, so neither one is truly safe, and she needs both parts of herself in order to be an effective hero.

There's a sequel, which I will definitely read. It's a decent job of writing, with more emotional depth and subtlety than a lot of supers books, and I enjoyed it.

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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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Tuesday, 22 October 2019

Review: The Spirit Siphon

The Spirit Siphon The Spirit Siphon by Ben S. Dobson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'm enjoying this series, though I still haven't found any of the subsequent books as good as the first one. This one, in particular, seems a little short on tension; I'm not sure why, because the situation (trying not to start a war while tracking down an old adversary) has plenty of tension built in. Perhaps it's that the characters never seem to make much progress on anything. They find things out, the situation complicates, they even confront the adversary, but they don't really succeed at much, and while not succeeding complicates their lives a bit, I didn't get the sense of a powerful downward spiral (followed by last-minute triumph against the odds) that an action-oriented book like this needs.

It feels very much like a transitional book, inserted to move the characters from one situation to another, rather than being a complete adventure in itself.

The half-orc character's zest for life is still on display, but not as much (and that's one of the best aspects of the series, for me). Nor is her human partner's cleverness and ability to defeat mages by getting inside their heads.

All in all, not the best entry in what is still an enjoyable series.

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Review: The Glass Magician

The Glass Magician The Glass Magician by Caroline Stevermer
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is an experienced author, and it shows in the smooth and assured writing. Unlike most period pieces, it isn't full of obvious anachronisms (with an exception I'll mention later) or regrettable vocabulary glitches. However, the plot, the characters, and especially the setting all fell a bit short of excellence for me.

There's nothing really wrong with the plot. It's more or less mystery with a chance of romance, though there's a dash of coming-of-age in there as well. The protagonist must deal with the discovery that she isn't who she thought she was, that her family situation is not as she's been told, and that her mentor isn't who she thought he was either. Meanwhile, she's prevented from working as a stage magician, which brings a brief threat of economic difficulties, quickly averted. She ends up the house guest of a man who both attracts and annoys her, caught up in the murder of a rival magician, and under threat from what amounts to a force of nature because of her newly discovered identity.

It's probably a bit too much for a book this length, and some of the elements don't really get the development they need. The denouement to the mystery is a painfully awkward attempt at a villain reveal which, rather against the odds given how badly it's done, succeeds in flushing out the murderer. The pursued-by-manticores plot at least has a level of tension that's largely missing elsewhere. There are a few conflicts ("I must clear my mentor's name, but doing so risks my life") set up by the interweaving plots. It's not outstanding, but it will do.

The characters are all right. There's nothing really wrong with them either. They're not complete cardboard cutouts or straight out of central casting, not quite. But they don't have an uncommon amount of individuality or depth either. You can describe each of them in a phrase (the rich young man, the rich young man's dilettante sister, the mentor, the monster hunter, the Romany magic shop proprietor, the landlady) and there's not a lot to add to that brief capsule description. The protagonist and viewpoint character has the most to her, of course, and she does develop and change in the course of the story.

There were a couple of things about the setting that tripped me up and challenged my suspension of disbelief. We're in an alternate 1905, similar to our own 1905 in many ways (including some prominent people), but different in many other ways. Firstly, as well as baseline humans ("Solitaires") there are shifters ("Traders") and people who have some kind of nature affinity that's never really made completely clear ("Sylvestri"). The three can interbreed. In order to shift forms, you have to be a Trader on both sides of your family, but if Traders intermarry too much they produce manticores, monsters that can shift into apparent human form in order to stalk young Traders who are not yet in full control of their shifts and eat their magic, killing them in the process.

For some reason that is never made clear, pretty much everyone who is prominent and successful is a Trader, and vice versa. The lack of an explanation for this was one of the things that tripped me up. I couldn't figure out a history in which the ability to turn into an animal (and the loss of human thought and memory beginning around the age of 70) translated automatically into becoming rich and powerful. Several of the actual historical figures mentioned are Traders, and the impression one gets is that nobody can just rise to prominence on their talents (as some of those people did in our reality); they have to be a Trader. Why?

Most Native Americans are Sylvestri, and they have a treaty with the other Sylvestri that has kept the centre of the North American continent theirs, while the coasts are apparently colonised - both seem to be part of the United States, though that isn't said explicitly - and a railway runs between the two. Again, this seems unlikely; it doesn't play a big role in the plot, except that the Sylvestri ambassador is a minor character. (He is stationed in New York. Is New York the capital, then? Ambassadors are posted to capitals, consuls are posted to non-capitals.) And yet the Gilded Age is in full swing on the Eastern seaboard, unsupported by the resources of the central US. (The wealthy in the real Gilded Age often had extensive holdings in those central states.)

It's hard to resist the idea that Native American sovereignty over a large portion of their land is simply something the author put in because she thought it should be that way, especially given other indications. There are black people in this alternate world, but they have a much higher status than was the case in our 1905 (40 years after the Civil War, let's not forget); a black woman is a prominent lawyer, and two other black women form two-thirds of the influential Board of Trade, who rule on certain important Trader matters. (The status of women seems a little higher, too.) Race is something that's constantly highlighted; the viewpoint character is a white woman, yet every person she meets, most of whom are white, is described by their race as well as whether they're Solitaire, Trader, or Sylvestri (which she generally seems to be able to tell as easily as their ethnicity). I'm not a conservative person and am mostly sympathetic to liberal viewpoints, but this does read to me like conspicuous 21st-century white liberalism projected intrusively onto an earlier age.

Overall, then, I found this book fell short of being fully satisfying. The plot, while servicable, lacked the momentum it could have had, and the mystery resolution was painfully bad; the characters stuck mostly to type; and there were, for me, big holes in the worldbuilding that distracted me from the story.

I received a copy via Netgalley for purposes of review.

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Review: Max and the Multiverse

Max and the Multiverse Max and the Multiverse by Zachry Wheeler
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Max is basically the epitome of why I hesitate to read books with male protagonists these days. He is an arrogant, ignorant, aimless slacker, completely oblivious to how his life is made easy for him by the work of people he despises (including his parents, whose role in the story consists entirely of their absence). The narrative voice manages to add more ignorance (of the complex role of religion in the development of society and technology; of the religious origin of names like "Veronica" - the AI in the non-religious utopia; of how you need a whole society, not just an intellectual elite, for anything to function), and contempt, notably for fat people, "stupid" people, and religious people - who are equated with stupid people. The descriptions of the space lesbians having amorous interludes are creepily enthusiastic. It's no wonder that he several times depicts people in service professions being rude to the protagonist because of how annoyingly ignorant and boorish he is; most of us have not had that experience, but I wouldn't be surprised if the author had.

Though most (not all) of the sentences are punctuated correctly, if one ignores the interrobangs, far too many of them have words accidentally left out; there is a profusion of dangling modifiers; and the author affects a high-flown vocabulary and several times stumbles over it. "Don", for example, means "put on clothing" (it was originally "do on"); it does not mean to wear clothing. It's used incorrectly four times and, oddly, correctly once. "Visage" means face, not sight. The prose has an unfortunate tendency in a purplish direction, overall, which eventually becomes wearing.

Part of the schtick, which is important early on but loses all relevance later, is that Max shifts universes when he falls asleep. But, as often happens in alternate-world novels, the most arbitrary things about his life, the things that are most likely to change - his very existence, his address, his cat, the identity of his girlfriend, his parents happening to be absent - are exactly the things that remain constant. Events even flow from universe to universe, so he breaks up with his girlfriend in one universe and in the next universe that was also something that happened, even though so much else has changed.

In the end, the multiverse shifting has absolutely no relevance to the plot whatsoever, except that it enables Max to get into space (in an advanced utopian version of the world that changed completely 20,000 years earlier and yet still somehow has Max in it). Space in an alternate universe is astonishingly like contemporary America, but with funnier-looking people and the usual whiz-bang technological furniture space adventures tend to share. It's lacking in imagination; it may be intended as part of the satire, but satire needs to be a bit more... satirical than this.

I promised myself that if the mediocre white guy ended up sleeping with the space lesbians essentially because he was the mediocre white guy, I would ding it another star, but happily that didn't happen. I should probably ding it half a star for the fact that he saved the day in the crucial moment when the otherwise competent women were helpless, and did so by pretending he was sleeping with the space lesbians and making them act like brainless bimbos. So it's two and a half stars, rounded up to three. But I will definitely not be reading another book in the series or another book by this author.

The cat was good, though.

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Review: One Blood

One Blood One Blood by Sabrina Chase
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read the first of the series some years ago, but there was enough reminder/backstory stuff to catch me up without having to refresh myself.

I remember the first book as being very well edited; this one has a few minor glitches, mostly apostrophes and commas, but for the most part it's smooth and even, and I could relax into it without being constantly irritated by the copy editing.

It's an enjoyable ensemble-cast adventure. The "it's us humans together against the alien Other" premise rings a little old-fashioned to me, but it's far from the worst take I've seen on it, and there are plenty of hints that the Earth-humans, at least, have a slightly more sophisticated take on war than that. The military background of several of the characters came across to me as convincing (I have not served in the military, though, so take that for what it's worth). There's lots of winning hearts and minds and clever problem-solving, as well as a smaller amount of blowing stuff up, which works for me as a balance.

The characters, including the non-Earth-human ones, are easily distinguishable, and the two main characters in particular, the military leader and the suddenly-superpowered geek, have some depth and heft to them. I believed and enjoyed their strong personal relationship, too.

Extra points for a cat, as always.

It's good enough that I'll consider adding it to my Best of the Year, though not so good that it's going on that list automatically. Definitely a strong four stars, but it lacks that extra depth or something outstanding that would take it to five.

I'll read the third in the trilogy, though, for sure.

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