Monday, 6 April 2020

Review: The Eye of Night

The Eye of Night The Eye of Night by Pauline J. Alama
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is going to rate very highly in my annual Year's Best list.

Bookbub's ad for it quoted Booklist as recommending it for fans of George R. R. Martin and Lois McMaster Bujold's The Curse of Chalion, so I wasn't sure whether I would like it or not; I strongly dislike Martin but love the Chalion novels deeply. Fortunately, it turned out to be more like the latter than the former.

I'm marking it as well-edited, with an asterisk: the ebook has apparently been scanned from a print book, and there are odd artifacts of the scanning process. For example, every time a sentence begins "Yet", there is a space before the "t". Mostly, though, it isn't bad, and there are only three or four typos apart from that. The language use is confident and capable throughout. Some reviewers are describing it as "wordy," but I didn't find it so, and I tend to be impatient with books that don't have much plot per thousand words, or bloated epic fantasies.

It's not just your standard epic fantasy, either. There are some tropes: a quest, an artifact of power, companions helping one another through it all, but the questers aren't your usual young blacksmith's apprentice who's secretly a prince. They're a merchant's son who joined a religious order after he was the sole survivor of a shipwreck that killed his whole family, and then became disillusioned before taking final vows; and a woman of no apparent consequence, small, her face distorted by old wounds, who is significant not because of who she secretly is but because of the choices she makes. They're both around 30.

There are meetings with people who seem kind and generous but aren't, or are only so conditionally, but also with people who actually are kind and generous. There are complex characters left and right, in fact, and certainly the central pair have a lot of depth to them. They aren't just a bunch of archetypes or stock characters.

And there's no delusion about being descended from nobility meaning that you have some kind of special claim on anything. The nobles are a scurvy lot, taken as a whole, and the simple people are much more worthwhile.

There are some heartwrenching decisions made selflessly, there's True Love, there are plot twists, there are realistic hardships on the journey. There's tension about what will happen next and if our heroes will make it through.

I thoroughly enjoyed it, and wish the author had written something else (longer than a short story) so I could immediately read it.

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Tuesday, 31 March 2020

Review: The Shadow Commission

The Shadow Commission The Shadow Commission by David Mack
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Wow. Note to self: don't read any more of this series. It's well written, well edited, well told, but the body count is really brutal. Not just in nameless mooks (though certainly that), but in people who matter very much to the main characters. Many, many people. So many.

The main characters, though flawed, are deeply principled, which is why instead of trying to buy them off, a reclusive billionaire who's trying to get a monopoly on magick orders them killed. That... doesn't work out well for anyone.

The series is gradually making its way through the decades; the first (which I haven't read) was in World War II, the second in the 1950s, and this one is in the 1960s, and involves a secret history of the Kennedy assassination. The historical side seems well handled, as far as I can tell, being no expert; no glaring anachronisms leaped out at me. The ceremonial/goetic magic(k) has a bit more colour and heft than the usual invented-out-of-nothing urban fantasy magic. The main characters' background as spies is well used. There's a heist, albeit a brief one. There are many, many desperate fights (with the aforesaid high body count), which are well described.

Even though it's much more violent than I prefer (with a large helping of swearing and some drug use), I never seriously considered stopping, because it's extremely well done. Just not the kind of thing I really like to read, sadly. I'm giving it four stars anyway, for quality.

I received a copy via Netgalley for review.

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Thursday, 26 March 2020

Review: The Great Faerie Strike

The Great Faerie Strike The Great Faerie Strike by Spencer Ellsworth
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Disclaimers upfront: the author and I both belong to the same writers' forum (though I don't think we've directly interacted), and I received a copy via Netgalley for review.

This is, in part, a pastiche of Victorian adventure fiction (the format of the chapter titles makes that pretty clear). I'm therefore going to assume that the scene where a Convenient Eavesdrop is set up by Accidental Discovery of a Secret Passage is part of the pastiche, and not a terrible piece of writing that diminishes the agency of the protagonists for the convenience of advancing the plot. Likewise the fact (lampshaded at one point) that the two protagonists keep bumping into each other by coincidence. I am trying hard to work with the author here, and give him the benefit of the doubt, because normally I would call out shenanigans like this.

There's no working around the fact, though, that it needs another quick round of edits, for vocabulary, continuity, and a bit of punctuation (a couple of missing periods, a couple of misplaced apostrophes, a couple of commas that I personally would add for better flow).

There's a surprising amount of difference between the vocabulary of England in the 19th century and the US in the 21st, and almost every 21st-century American who tries to write 19th-century British English gets it wrong to some degree, even leaving aside the normal differences between the two dialects. In this case, the quite common error "hurtle" (to move very quickly) for "hurl" (to throw) appears three times; "balmy" (having a pleasant climate) is used for "barmy" (mad); the words "bunting," "callow," "visages," "milliners," and "conflagration" appear to be used incorrectly; and, most notably, the author uses "choleric" to mean "suffering from cholera," which it doesn't, and is almost certainly confusing cholera with tuberculosis ("consumption"), which made young women pale-skinned and bright-eyed, like the vampire protagonist. So "consumptive" is probably the word he is looking for.

The Irish character also uses the word "after" a lot, but I'm pretty sure doesn't use it the way an actual 19th-century Irishman would use it. And the same woman is referred to as "Mrs. Unsworth," "Lady Elizabeth Unsworth" and "Lady Unsworth," at least two of which must be incorrect, since Lady Elizabeth Unsworth is the daughter of a duke, marquess, or earl, Lady Unsworth is the wife of a knight or baronet, and neither of them should be called Mrs.

In terms of continuity, a five-pound note becomes several one-pound notes and then turns back again, a boat docks twice, and in a couple of conversations people somehow know things that their conversational partners haven't actually mentioned.

I've nitpicked a lot, but I did enjoy the book. The characters were determined to do the right thing and persevered through extreme challenges, the villains were as villainous as possible, the heroes as heroic as possible, and it recalled Victorian sensational literature at every turn while simultaneously critiquing Victorian capitalism and colonialism - and yet not making the characters into 21st-century people with a completely 21st-century way of thinking.

Above all, it was fun (despite the high body count), imaginative, and, barring the issues mentioned above, well-written. I would read a sequel, but it's not quite going to make it to my Best of the Year list.

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Tuesday, 24 March 2020

Review: The Sol Majestic

The Sol Majestic The Sol Majestic by Ferrett Steinmetz
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

My first five-star read of 2020 thoroughly earned its fifth star with insight, drama, and bravura writing.

Ferrett Steinmetz holds the unusual distinction of having written a dystopian novel I don't hate, primarily because of the way he handles his characters and the thoughtfulness and insight he brings to ideas about human society and interaction, so when I saw this one I knew it would be worth a look. It helps that (thanks to my wife's obsession with food competition shows) I've developed an interest in, and some knowledge of, high-end restaurants and their cuisine.

A high-end restaurant is the stage for this coming-of-age/revolution story, and saving it from bankruptcy that would take down the entire space station on which it's located and everyone working there is a central plot driver. Kenna, the protagonist, has been raised in undernourished poverty by parents who practice the Inevitable Philosophies, a more-or-less constructed religion that was a fad a generation or two before, but is now in eclipse. His mother's (ironic) philosophy is "I will save the starving millions," his father's "I will lead my people back to greatness". Neither of them has come anywhere close, despite extensive sucking up to the rich and powerful that entails a lot of travel on slow, cheap transport ships, in the course of which Kenna gets beaten up a lot and rarely has much to eat.

Despite the toxic nature of his parents' religion (they are really nasty, self-righteous people in two different but entwined ways) and his own rough life, Kenna has the compassion that his parents lack. In the course of the novel he journeys to the wisdom that they lack as well, in a context they despise: hard work by people who are unappreciated for their service to the wealthy elites that Kenna's parents cultivate. His parents, and of course the elites themselves, see the elites as the only ones who truly matter; Kenna comes to disagree, and articulate his disagreement powerfully.

Along the way, there's love, there's friendship, there's a new appreciation for food as something more than simple nutrition, there are vivid and memorable characters, there are tough choices, there are moments of great emotional power. Kenna's journey took me along on a journey of my own; this is the best book I've read in well over a year.

Of course, it isn't perfect. Kenna, as an Inevitable Prince, has been trained to use an exalted style of speaking (which he eventually abandons, to speak straightforwardly from the heart in the manner of ordinary people), and the vocabulary he uses is not always used quite correctly. "Vouchsafe," for example, sounds like it should mean "vouch for the safety of," and that's how the author uses it, but it does not mean that.

ThIs is (technically) space opera, even though it doesn't focus on the usual concerns of space opera but just uses the furniture, and like most space opera, it isn't intended as an actual projection of technological development. There are technologies that are probably impossible, like the Escargone, a space which speeds up time inside it (my French isn't that great, so I couldn't figure out why something that speeds time up is named after a snail), but there are technologies that already exist today or are being developed that are conspicuous by their absence, like AI and mixed reality. The tech is a means to the end of the plot, so I just had to treat it as such.

Also like most space opera, there's a glaring hiatus in culture between now and however many years in the future we are (it's never specified, but there are many inhabited planets, so presumably a couple of centuries or more). Contemporary references include Niffeneger syndrome (a reference to the novelist and her randomly disappearing character); "kerbal" used as a verb for working out movement in space; the Freon smell of old refrigerators; and dubstep. This is a difficult one for space opera writers; if you want to drop a quick reference that will have emotional resonance for your audience and convey a lot in a few words, you pretty much have to pretend the reference is still relevant however many years in the future, even though realistically it's a bit like a nineteenth-century novel set in 2020 referencing Sarah Bernhardt when it wants to evoke the idea of a glamorous woman. I don't know that there's a good answer to this dilemma. Probably the best answer is what Steinmetz has done: just drop the reference in, relying on the fact that most people won't notice the anachronism but will have the emotional response you're looking for.

I did have other moments of disbelief, too: for example, why does Paulius have purchasing authority, if he's so bad with money, and given that he does have it, how has the restaurant not gone out of business years ago? But I'm unusually critical, and despite all these nitpicks, this is an amazing novel with a glorious ending that took me on a thought-provoking, gripping emotional journey.

It's not quite so good that I intend to read his trilogy; I like books about drug use even less than I like dystopias, which is saying something. Though I suspect that if I did read those books, I would be delightfully surprised. Again.

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Review: Among Others

Among Others Among Others by Jo Walton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Jo Walton is a good deal smarter than me, and better read. She's also about three years older, as is her narrator/diarist in this book, Mori - clearly based quite strongly on her own teenage self. So I wasn't reading all the same books as Mori at the same time, and I haven't read all of the ones she mentions, though like her I was a huge Lord of the Rings fan as a teenager (and a huge Roger Zelazny fan, eventualy, though I came to him much later). Like her, too, I found the comparison to "Tolkien at his best" on the cover of the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant grounds for suspicion, though unlike her I did read them. She complains about the limitations of her school library, but between that and the local library I think she probably had access to a wider variety than I did at the same age; also, our tastes differ somewhat.

There's a lot of literary reference here, including the use of invented terminology from one novel (Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle) which I don't think I've read - or if I have, it was when I was about Mori's age, and I've forgotten it. Because there were so many references to books I wasn't familiar with - because Mori's world was so much built of the fantasy and SF available at the end of the 1970s - parts of this book were lost on me, and I think that will be a common experience, since few people are so well read as Mori/Jo in that literature and, if they are, have quite likely not read the books recently.

The books of that era tended to speculate about different ways for people to be in community, rather than, like many contemporary books, speculating about different ways for people to live as individuals (it's a matter of emphasis, and I won't fight you about it if you disagree). Because, again, Mori lives so much in the world of books, a lot of her thinking is formed by them; her view of sexuality is almost entirely out of Heinlein and his contemporaries, which is probably not a great model, and she has a bit of difficulty with it in practice.

But none of this is the really important thing, which is that in this version of Jo Walton's childhood, she (or rather Mori) can see fairies, and do magic, and she was disabled and her twin sister killed when they prevented their witch mother from becoming a Dark Queen. And since Mori, despite her matter-of-factness, reads as an unreliable narrator, I spent much of the book in two minds about whether she was engaging in an elaborate self-delusion following a terrible trauma, or whether these aspects were real. She emphasizes that magic is "deniable"; you can always come up with a reason why something happened naturally that you were trying to make happen with magic, because you can see the chain of cause and effect, but that chain is itself the effect of the magic. She is deeply worried, when she finds a group of like-minded SFF fans, that she has magically manipulated them into liking her, or perhaps even into existing, and swears off magic except for prevention of harm (which does her credit, ethically).

The magic gets less deniable, less plausibly a self-delusion, towards the end of the book, and a book that began as very much a diary with character development and events, but not really more of a plot than real life has, turns into a story by the end. I feel like I would have liked it more if it hadn't, if it had stayed ambiguous throughout; but I could be wrong.

The gradual backstory reveal works well, though, and is well paced. I related very much to the image of an intelligent teenager who reads a lot and doesn't fit in and cares more about people in books than the people who are part of their real life (though I was fortunate enough to have two excellent friends at my school, something that Mori doesn't have; she has to find them outside).

It's a bravura performance by someone very clever, but at the same time it feels like it's not sure what it wants to be - which is also accurate to the teenage experience, of course. The mundane details of boarding-school life and teenage drama are told with an insightful depth of observation that transposes them into a higher key, and the fantastical backstory would also make a great book by itself, but the two of them together felt at odds sometimes. It's the fantastical that wins, and, as I said, I'm not fully convinced that it ought to have. So I'm left with: it's brilliant, and, indeed, brill, but for me it lacks the clarity that it needs in order to be truly amazing. Four stars, not five.

I'd still read another Jo Walton in a heartbeat, and indeed I've asked for another from Netgalley (which is where I got my review copy).

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Review: The Ghosts of Sherwood

The Ghosts of Sherwood The Ghosts of Sherwood by Carrie Vaughn
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I went through a series of feelings about this book.

The first was anticipation. I've been a long-time fan of the author, since the early Kitty Norville books, loved the Golden Age supers novels, and have been impressed by her short fiction. Recently, I enjoyed a side novel in the Kitty Norville series, made up of several shorter pieces (a "fixup"). While Robin Hood is pretty well-trodden ground, I felt confident that Carrie Vaughn was up to the task of making it fresh and giving it a new angle, lifting it above the tropes of the often-told story.

So the next emotion I experienced was slight disappointment, when I first saw that this was a novella (less than 20,000 words), and then, as I began to read, found that it unfolded at first as a linear story such as I've often seen written by new professional writers: competent, certainly, but not promising to rock my world. Fairly ordinary Robin Hood fanfic, I felt, without any fantasy elements or new twists; just "here is Robin as a middle-aged family man, after Prince John has legitimately ascended to the throne, and here are his kids, and here is the political situation, and now we will have a crisis."

But by the end, I had been drawn into the plight of the children, and was thoroughly ready for a tension-filled escape/rescue, and felt the family's emotion around it. So even though this is quite a straightforward story, and (like many novellas) it feels like it wants to be longer, and it leaves a lot at the end not fully resolved, on the whole I enjoyed it, and felt it was done with the skill I've come to expect from this author.

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Review: Superior: The Return of Race Science

Superior: The Return of Race Science Superior: The Return of Race Science by Angela Saini
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I found Angela Saini's earlier book, Inferior>, about scientists' attempts to prove that women are less capable than men, very interesting. So when I heard her mention this book on the podcast Our Opinions Are Correct, I picked it up, and I'm glad I did.

If anything, it's better than Inferior (well, it would be, wouldn't it?). It has a clearer throughline, and more tightly weaves together science as it is practiced with the social and political uses and implications of that science.

The conclusion, from the latest genetic evidence, is that apart from minor and mostly superficial adaptations to local climatic and food-supply conditions, genetic differences between populations are smaller and have less impact than genetic differences between individuals in those populations. Not that populations (sometimes referred to as "races") are discrete entities in any case; everything blends at the edges, and the more we discover about prehistory, the clearer it becomes that there has always been mixing and migration. The world as it is is not the end point of this process, nor is it witnessing this process for the first time as it mingles formerly "pure" races who have always lived where they currently live. And, while there's little evidence that genetics has much to do with intelligence or population health in any simple, straightforward way, there's plenty of evidence that living in poverty, and being under the psychological stress of discrimination, does affect both displayed (not inherent) intelligence and health status.

And yet, as the author shows us, there's a persistent thread of "science" going through great contortions in order to claim the opposite - forced to the fringes after World War II, but now making something of a comeback in the current political climate.

I found this a challenging book, that made me think hard about a lot of assumptions that our culture instills in us. Since that's clearly the author's intent, I judge it a success.


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