Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Review: The Legion of Nothing: Rebirth

The Legion of Nothing: Rebirth
The Legion of Nothing: Rebirth by Jim Zoetewey

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I encountered this story first of all on Podiobooks, and it's a testament to how engaging a story it is that I listened to the whole thing, despite what I would have to rate as the worst audiobook performance I have ever heard. (The reader's delivery wasn't just flat; what emphasis he did put in was reliably in the wrong place.)

Second time around, several years later, I read the ebook, and again, the story kept me engaged despite the fact that it needs a good editor. There are missing words, added words, missing commas, added commas, and inconsistent or incorrect apostrophes (most notably, the author doesn't seem sure whether to put one in "Heroes' League" or not). Nothing truly egregious, and I only spotted one minor homophone error, but there are quite a few instances of the same issues.

So, what was this story that kept me so engaged? It's a young superhero's first-person story of the revival of the Heroes' League (yes, the apostrophe should be there), started by his grandfather along with some others, whose grandchildren are now also teenagers and are also ready to join the new League. The narrator is Nick (hero name "the Rocket"), who has inherited his grandfather's powered armour and, apparently, his interest and skill in engineering (though not his grandmother's phasing ability, it appears). It's not clear why, in most cases, the powers and other abilities have skipped a generation (assuming that they have; only one of the fathers is a super, as far as Nick is aware, though I presume there may be others unrevealed). But it leaves the teens with limited guidance and supervision from their elders, and they have to figure out the moral dilemmas of superheroism for themselves.

Nick is often not sure what to do, and ends up doing nothing, which is more realistic, though less exciting than the usual headstrong character one often gets in these stories. There's a good deal of mundanity in his life and his description, alongside the hero issues. I think that, on the whole, this is a feature rather than a bug; it highlights the hero stuff by contrast.

The plot gradually builds, and the action scenes are well distributed and well handled. The characters are mostly distinct and well-drawn (I never could get a handle on Marcus, but he's the one Nick knows least well). Overall, an entertaining story, and if I could get some kind of reassurance that it would go past a good editor I would definitely want to read the next one.

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Sunday, 14 December 2014

Review: Night Broken

Night Broken
Night Broken by Patricia Briggs

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There are a few really good urban fantasy authors who aren't just grabbing a bunch of tropes and creating the written equivalent of an action movie, and Patricia Briggs is one of them. (Others include [a:Carrie Vaughn|8988|Carrie Vaughn|https://d.gr-assets.com/authors/1231952277p2/8988.jpg], [a:C.E. Murphy|8695|C.E. Murphy|https://d.gr-assets.com/authors/1199068025p2/8695.jpg] and, of course, [a:Jim Butcher|10746|Jim Butcher|https://d.gr-assets.com/authors/1400640324p2/10746.jpg].) These books have a depth of insight into human relationships, and use that to make the action scenes matter. Because there are action scenes; but they're not constant, and when they do occur the stakes are not the weaksauce "does the character win?" or even "will the character save the world... or destroy it?" Instead, they have implications and side-implications to do with all of the great human drives: esteem and affection, security and survival, power and control. There's not just one thing hanging on the outcome of the fight, and when this is the case you can get away with fewer fights, because they mean more.

In a sense, the actual physical fights in this book in particular are almost background to a different struggle, between Mercy (the series lead and narrator) and her husband's manipulative and pathetic ex-wife. The scenes in which Christie, the ex, manipulates everyone around her and sets up conversations and situations in which Mercy has no way to come out the winner is masterful, and shows a depth of life experience and reflection on human behaviour that you don't see in many genre books. This masterfulness gained the book its fifth star from me. I've decided to start giving five stars not just to books that leave me gasping or do something new that's completely amazing, but also to books that are particularly well done.

This book is particularly well done. Although it's well along in a series, with references to a spinoff series, it could be a starting point, since enough of the backstory is refreshed that you could follow what was going on. Some of the richness comes from having followed the series and seen the characters change and grow, but nevertheless this volume could stand on its own.

I looked forward to reading it, and I wasn't disappointed.

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Review: The Marvelous Land of Oz

The Marvelous Land of Oz
The Marvelous Land of Oz by L. Frank Baum

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Come for the whimsy, stay for the commentary on gender roles and expectations and the ethics of power. Or possibly vice versa.

The book is more than a century old, and of course Baum's views on these issues are not what a contemporary author would put across, but they were radical for their time. It's not an "ideas novel" in which the author shoves his ideology at you, though; it's a whimsical story for children that happens to have an overlay of social and political commentary from an unusual perspective.

As a children's story, it's at times a bit lacking in character agency and rather full of deus ex machina, but I forgave those as genre tropes and went along for the ride. I particularly liked the Woggle-Bug, who just about has to have been based on a real person (or more than one); his high opinion of his own education and his persistent punning are very recognisable as a type you will meet frequently on the Internet or in person. These days, he would probably be some sort of gamer, quite likely tabletop.

I'm reasonably sure that Baum is being ironic about Glinda "the Good"; she's actually a high-handed tyrant who happens to be beautiful and hence, carrying that signifier of goodness, gets away with it. But maybe I'm just too influenced by having seen Wicked.

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Monday, 8 December 2014

Review: Mind the Gap

Mind the Gap
Mind the Gap by Tim Richards

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This hovered, for me, in the tricky gap (ha!) between three and four stars. It's either right at the top of three stars - better than mediocre, reasonably competent, some originality, and I did enjoy it - or right at the bottom of four stars: over-padded middle, under-motivated protagonist, and at least some of the time I wished it was finished so that I could read something else, which is what finally decided me on a three-star rating.

Let's talk some more about the over-padded middle and under-motivated protagonist, which were the main reasons it didn't engage me more. There are quite a few cycles of "some things are explained that leave us with more questions, action scene, main character escapes using his power, fetches up somewhere else, dreams; shift to secondary viewpoint character, exposition, they make some decision or take some action, that character dreams". There were, for my taste, too many of those cycles.

You may have noticed in my summary that the main character, Darius, is primarily reactive, while secondary characters are more proactive, and this was another problem for me. At one point, one of the secondary characters reflects on the main character's motivations, and they're fairly weak, the kind of motivations a character often has near the start of a book rather than near the end: escape, get back home, and while he's at it rescue the girl.

Ah, the girl. Viv was, to me, the strongest character, more interesting, more proactive and more effective than the Darius was. They connect in a way that never convinced me: after one of his early teleportation episodes, Darius, disheveled, confused and presumably still with vomit breath from his reaction to his first episode, fetches up at Viv's coffee stand and talks like a crazy person. She meets him again by chance after work, and decides to take him home and sleep with him. Shortly thereafter, they're separated, but highly motivated to get back together and rescue each other, even though they basically hardly know each other (and it's already been established that this is his second casual sexual encounter in about three days). In the event, Viv rescues herself, largely, which I liked.

The last fifth or so of the book became more engaging, with thrilling events and a satisfying resolution, but there was an almost literal deus ex machina of sorts involved, and it wasn't enough to compensate for the overlong central portion.

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Friday, 5 December 2014

Review: Dreams of the Golden Age

Dreams of the Golden Age
Dreams of the Golden Age by Carrie Vaughn

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I love the idea of superhero fiction, but all too often the execution isn't to my taste. Most superhero fiction tends to the dark and gritty and tragic, and I'm not into that. This is the other kind. The book neatly describes itself in the last chapter: "It was family drama, not superhero mythology". And yet it's more than that sentence implies, as well.

It's a while since I read the first in the series, [b:After the Golden Age|8665134|After the Golden Age (Golden Age, #1)|Carrie Vaughn|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1408489200s/8665134.jpg|13536680]. In part, that was because I was waiting for the price to drop (I read more than 100 books a year, so $9.99 for an ebook isn't going to happen, however confident I am that the book will be good). I remember, though, that the first book focussed a lot more on relationships than on superheroics, on the consequences for the family members of the supers, particularly Celia, the non-powered daughter of Captain Olympus and Spark. She kept getting taken hostage, even though that never turned out well for the villains, and as an act of teenage rebellion once became a supervillain's minion.

Here, Celia is a middle-aged mother, bringing up teenage daughters and worrying she's doing it badly (she isn't, in the scheme of things) and that they will develop powers and put themselves in danger (one of them does), and at the same time hoping that her daughter and her daughter's friends will become the next generation of superpowered protectors of the city she loves. Because even if she hasn't inherited the powers, Celia has inherited the obsession with the city that both the heroes and villains born there seem to share.

Though Celia is a main viewpoint character, the other main viewpoint is her daughter Anna, AKA Compass Rose, who can locate anyone she knows well enough. Besides the usual mother-daughter stuff complicated by superpowers, and the usual friend stuff complicated by superpowers, and the usual teenage crush stuff complicated by superpowers, there's also a lot of reflection (mostly taking place in and around action) on what supers can do about crime that isn't street crime, and how they interface with the police and the media.

This is a realistic world, above all; a realistic world in which teenagers can shoot lasers from their hands and leap tall buildings, but in all other respects realistic. I've recently had two people ask me about my taste for superhero fiction. A friend on Google+ asked why I enjoyed superhero prose; he's an artist, and to him the visual aspect of comics is important. I replied, more or less, that prose gives an opportunity to go further into the characters' interior world and their relationships, rather than just being about the fights and the destruction, and this is very much what this book is like. There's a superhero fight, but it's a desperate, frightening thing filled with significance because of all the work that the author has put in beforehand building up the relationships and the inner lives of the characters.

The other person who asked me about my enjoyment of superhero fiction was my wife, who wanted to know why I like the TV show The Flash but don't like Scorpion because it's too over-the-top and hokey. My answer was that Scorpion is a technothriller; it tries to be set in the real world, but fails, because the technology that it tries to take completely seriously makes no sense whatsoever (and it's cheesier than the exports of Wisconsin). The Flash, on the other hand, is about relationships and conflicts in a world of what-if, where the what-if is superpowers. I accept the superpowers as part of the furniture of the world, without worrying about how physics doesn't work that way, because the show knows that physics doesn't work that way but is asking me to suspend my disbelief about it and enjoy the story.

That's also what this book is like. I quickly came to care about the characters, who are vulnerable and troubled without being whiny, brave and idealistic without being headstrong idiots, and whose conflicts are driven by their own flaws but ultimately resolved by their own virtues. It's good writing, good fiction.

So, it's a good book that just happens to have supers in it? No. The fact that these people are supers and the relatives of supers is fundamental to their situation and their identities. You couldn't remove that aspect and have a remotely similar book. The author has perfectly fused the "supers" part and the "people" part together and produced a whole greater than the sum of those parts.

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Friday, 28 November 2014

Review: Witch Hunt

Witch Hunt
Witch Hunt by Annie Bellet

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book doesn't pretend to be anything other than what it is: an entertaining D&D-style adventure. For the genre, it's well done, with no attempt at silly dialect, names which aren't ridiculous, and characters who, while not developed to any great depth, at least have relationships between them and act believably. While it's obviously in the D&D genre, it isn't in any of the licensed settings, and the worldbuilding shows some originality and thought.

It's a short book, and to me it feels about the right length for the story, a straightforward quest to deliver a town from a curse.

At first I thought the editing was good, and certainly the writing is fluid and the punctuation competent, but later on I hit a few minor homonym errors (the worst being the "bowl" of a tree instead of "bole"). Most of them probably wouldn't be noticeable to a casual reader.

If what you're looking for is a simple, entertaining tale that could be (and quite likely is) a competently-done writeup of an experienced D&D group's gaming session, look no further.

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Review: Random

Random by Alma Alexander

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There's a group of YA authors - I'm thinking of [a:Robin McKinley|5339|Robin McKinley|https://d.gr-assets.com/authors/1314406026p2/5339.jpg], [a:Juliet Marillier|8649|Juliet Marillier|https://d.gr-assets.com/authors/1373081365p2/8649.jpg], [a:Justine Larbelestier|4447198|Justine Larbelestier|https://s.gr-assets.com/assets/nophoto/user/u_50x66-ccc56e79bcc2db9e6cdcd450a4940d46.png], and a few others - who write the kind of books that snooty adults who look down on YA in Internet articles have clearly never read. These are books that don't get made into popular movies, because most of what happens is internal to the characters.

This kind of YA has depth and resonance and significance. It shines a light on the path for young people (young women, in particular) who are looking for courage and a place in the world. It's some time since I was young, and I've never been a woman, but I'm glad that young women have writers like these in their corner, writing the sort of books that will help to shape their lives towards being remarkable people with a sense of hope and purpose, despite the challenges they face.

Not only does Alma Alexander understand this, and talk about the phenomenon in this book, but this book is itself an example of what I mean. The experience of being an immigrant, the experience of being different, the experience of being treated unfairly by self-righteous authority and being powerless to do anything about it, are all here, beautifully depicted, unflinchingly described, shown with all their terrible consequences.

The book begins with one young woman's unexpected and disconcerting transformation, but then takes a step back and shows what lay behind the transformation, what triggered it: the rediscovery of her older sister's diaries, telling the story of what led up to her tragic loss. In fact, the older sister's story takes over the book, relegating what would otherwise be a remarkable transformation almost to an inconvenience (though it's clear it will be important in the rest of the trilogy). The book closes with a stunning revelation that left me unable to say anything but "Wow. Wow."

Oddly enough, I wouldn't usually have picked this book up; I only did so because the author approached me (as someone who has indicated on Goodreads that he is a fan of hers for her earlier work) and asked me to review it. I usually don't take review requests, and especially of books that, based on the cover and blurb, I wouldn't pick up for myself, but I agreed to read the sample and see if it hooked me. It very much did, and I'm grateful to the author for the review copy and for drawing it to my attention, as well as for writing the book in the first place.

I don't give five stars often or lightly, only to books that I know I'll remember for a long time to come, that were more than just entertaining, that showed me something out of the ordinary. This is such a book.

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