Sunday, 19 August 2018

Review: The Long List Anthology Volume 3: More Stories From the Hugo Award Nomination List

The Long List Anthology Volume 3: More Stories From the Hugo Award Nomination List The Long List Anthology Volume 3: More Stories From the Hugo Award Nomination List by David Steffen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've read the previous two volumes of this series, and there are always some excellent stories in them, as well as some that are not to my personal taste (but are still well done). The publication is done on a shoestring, and the copy editing reflects that, unfortunately. But there are some remarkable stories, and that's what keeps me coming back.

There was only one story in this volume that I didn't read it its entirety: Seanan McGuire's "Ye Highlands and Ye Lowlands," which vigorously signalled early on that it was going to be a gruelling, nasty postapocalyptic. I'm not up for that. She's an excellent writer, but far too dark most of the time for my personal taste.

Not that there weren't plenty of other dark stories. Joseph Allen Hill's "The Venus Effect" explores racist police brutality through multiple attempts to tell a spec-fic story. It's postmodern and meta, but well enough done that I forgave that. It's not the only story in which race plays a powerful role; Sam J. Miller's "Things with Beards," just before it in the volume, features a gay black man and what may be a metaphor for AIDS.

Jason Sanford's "Blood Grains Speak Through Memories" shows us a kind of postapocalyptic future in which nanotech created to preserve what's left of the environment has put humanity into a dystopian situation. Sarah Pinsker's "Sooner or Later Everything Falls Into the Sea" is also postapocalyptic.

Not everything is, though. "A Dead Djinn in Cairo" by P. Djeli Clark is an interesting take on mythos, with an Egyptian supernatural detective who dresses like an Englishman because she finds it "exotic". There's another mystery, of sorts, in Mary Robinette Kowal's "Forest of Memory". I very much enjoy MRK's contributions to the Writing Excuses podcast, but I have to confess I've never liked her actual writing much. I liked this more than the other things of hers I've read, though I did feel it was wordier than it needed to be.

There does seem to be a predominance of near-horror, dark fantasy, dark SF, dystopian and postapocalyptic in this volume, though; mood of the times, perhaps. It's a tribute to the skill of the authors that, although those subgenres are not usually what I like to read, I didn't hate the stories. Even Cassandra Khaw's "Hammers on Bone" - noir body-horror in a depressed England - didn't put me off. I've mentioned the theme of race; there are oppressed underclasses, lack of access to medical treatment ("Welcome to the Medical Clinic at the Interplanetary Relay Station | Hours Since the Last Patient Death: 0" by Caroline M. Yoachim), and other echoes of the contemporary US political situation. I know that stories will always reflect the zeitgeist, but it would have been good to have a few more that ran more counter to it.

Rebecca Ann Jordan's "We Have a Cultural Difference, Can I Taste You?" has a wonderfully alien alien, with a moving backstory; Lavie Tidhar's "Terminal" gives us the picture of terminally ill people piloting (for no readily apparent or explicable reason) a swarm of pods to Mars. These were among the strangest stories, but there was a powerful strangeness to most of them, usually in a good way.

Probably my favourite story was the last one, by S.B. Divya, "Runtime," a story of a determined member of an underclass working hard to better herself by means of a competition, in this case a an endurance race (in which personal modification and assistive equipment is permitted).

Overall, while the tone was not my favourite, the skill on display here is remarkable, and I will certainly look for the next volume when it comes out.

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Review: Hannah Green and Her Unfeasibly Mundane Existence

Hannah Green and Her Unfeasibly Mundane Existence Hannah Green and Her Unfeasibly Mundane Existence by Michael Marshall Smith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was out of my usual lane; darker than I generally like it, with the devil causing incidental mayhem in the lives of innocents wherever he went. However, because that wasn't the focus, but more or less character background; and because it was very well done, and (especially for a HarperCollins book) very well edited, with just a few missing words in sentences; and because it was original in its concept, I stuck with it.

Even though the title character is middle grade, the book isn't. It's definitely a book for adults, with musings (not too lengthy) on the human condition, and a sense of a dark world navigated fearfully but, on the whole, successfully. It resists a neat happy ending, but ends satisfactorily for all that. Along the way, multiple clearly distinguished characters with complicated relationships protagonize well and bravely in the cause of preventing a cosmic disaster.

I particularly enjoyed the accident imp, a comic-relief idiot character with a British dialect.

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Review: Lost Solace

Lost Solace Lost Solace by Karl Drinkwater
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I often say that if you give me a motivated protagonist in a dynamic situation, as long as you don't make any serious craft blunders you'll hook my attention for the duration. Extra points if the protagonist is a competent, capable woman.

Well, this book ticks all those boxes with a big thick pen.

It's a thrill ride of a space opera, with a mysterious lost ship full of alien danger, a giant gravity well around a neutron star, and well-equipped ships from a fascist-sounding military, all threatening Opal, the protagonist, and the AI-equipped ship she has stolen. I don't normally read military space opera, but the main reason I don't is that so much of it is the same, and this was a very different take on the possibilities of the genre.

I appreciated the fact that she tried repeatedly to convince the military that she wouldn't harm them if they let her go peacefully, even though that never worked and she always had to fight. The fights were suspenseful and varied, and, while the backstory became evident from clues long before it was explicitly revealed, it gave her a good reason to do what she was doing. The degree to which she, a former low-level grunt, was able to defeat better-equipped and more experienced military officers through cleverness and the assistance of her unparalleled AI did strain my disbelief a little, but I was willing to play along because it was so well done.

I do hope her refusal to follow the rules becomes a liability at some point, rather than just a motivation and a character trait, but I will certainly look out for more in this series.

I received a copy via Netgalley for purposes of review.

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Sunday, 29 July 2018

Review: Heroine Complex

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

I've been waiting to read this for a while; I read the preview and decided that it was good enough that I wanted to read it, but not so amazingly good that I would pay the publisher's inflated price. I put it on my Await Ebook Price Drop wishlist, and eventually the price dropped into a more reasonable range and I picked it up.

I enjoy supers novels, when they're well done, and this is. It gets my "well-edited" tag; only a couple of minor typos that I noticed. It does get a content warning for lots and lots of swearing and quite a bit of (non-explicit) sex.

It's full of people with dysfunctional relationships. Normally, this would put me off, but when they're mostly self-aware about their dysfunction, and trying to deal with it, and at least partially succeeding, and quipping amusingly while doing so, it works. It helps, too, that the various dysfunctions are different from each other; though there are a lot of parent issues, they range from High Expectations Asian Parents Disapprove of My Career, through Self-Absorbed Dad Abandoned Us After Mom Died, to My Mother is Literally an Evil Psycho, to My Elder Sister is Raising Me Because of Aforementioned Self-Absorbed Dad/Dead Mom and I Have Teen Angst. There are also intimacy issues, and the kind of issues you get when your best friend is more popular than you are and you always feel like the sidekick, and the kind of issues you get when you take over from your more popular best friend and she resents it. And all of these are explored with multiple characters, which is clever.

The superhero action (against demons from another dimension) is fun, the banter witty, the plot and characters well handled.

The one weak spot for me was the interpolated blog posts from the Bitchy Mean Girl, which I felt were a bit clumsy in their snark. Everything else, though, worked, and I will look for the sequels.

Not at full price, though.

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Review: City of Broken Magic

City of Broken Magic City of Broken Magic by Mirah Bolender
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book features a determined young woman making her way in a dangerous profession - one of a bare few underresourced people fighting monsters, the existence of which the city is determined to officially deny.

That's an excellent start, and it progresses with plenty of excitement and action, and some degree of personal and interpersonal growth.

The setting was a bit lightly done; in particular, I always have a problem with an isolated island (especially one, as here, consisting of isolated cities which it's dangerous to travel between) developing high technology. That's something that arises more naturally in a continental setting where there's a lot of exchange of ideas and mobility among the population.

I read a pre-publication copy, and my enjoyment was markedly reduced by the author's lack of apparent acquaintance with the past perfect tense. A lot of authors today, when narrating in past tense, fail to go into past perfect to signal that they are talking about an event in the earlier past, which is disorienting and annoying. I hope, but don't necessarily expect, that this will be fixed by the time of publication; there are a lot of instances of it, which generally means that even a good copy editor will miss some.

Setting this aside, I found it good, though not great; a touch more depth to the characters and some more thought given to the setting would have helped.

I received a copy via Netgalley for purposes of review.

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Review: Foundryside

Foundryside Foundryside by Robert Jackson Bennett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I don't normally go for books which centre around characters in desperate, grinding poverty, oppressed by an uncaring and dystopian system. This is such a book, and yet, because it gave me a motivated character in a dynamic situation right out of the gate, it hooked me in and kept me reading.

It helped that the main character is a highly capable and determined young woman (my favourite type of character); she's a thief who can detect "scrived" (magical) devices and interact with them, because of a nasty experiment performed on her years before. When she gets hold of an ancient artefact that mysterious parties will do violence to obtain, she finds herself in the middle of conflicts that will leave everything changed, both around her and within her.

It's a strong concept, and it's well executed. The supporting characters are varied, with their hearts in the right place; the villains are suitably megalomaniacal and ruthless. There's amusing banter.

There's also a good deal of swearing, some, but by no means all, euphemistic, and some of it hinting at a religion that otherwise is conspicuous by its absence.

Overall, though, a fresh magical concept, complex and active characters, and a well-paced plot make this a compelling start to a series I will be watching closely.

I received a copy via Netgalley for purposes of review.

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Wednesday, 25 July 2018

Review: Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen

Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen by Lois McMaster Bujold
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A number of questions arose for me while I was reading this book.

Questions like: if the original author retcons her own characters, is it still fanfiction?

Was that retcon really necessary?

Where's the suspense?

It's a Lois McMaster Bujold book, so it contains wry wit, trenchant observations, and moments of poignancy.

But it's a recent Lois McMaster Bujold book, so it doesn't stand up well beside her best work. The stakes are personal, rather than being planetary or greater; the pace is sometimes slow, and the characters' actions are often mundane; it's not at all tightly plotted. One of the plot threads with the most sustained tension is the fate of some building materials, and the resolution for that is a deus ex machina that doesn't even fully resolve the issue.

There are sparkling moments, but on a spectrum of the author's books with Paladin of Souls and A Civil Campaign (two of my favourite books by anyone, let alone LMB) at one end, this is definitely at the other.

I also wasn't personally a fan of the bisexual, polyamorous retcon of Aral and Cordelia's relationship (that's not a spoiler, as it's revealed in the first chapter or two); it felt very fanfictiony. The love story that takes place in the book itself wasn't bad, though it wasn't amazing.

All in all, definitely one for completists only, particularly in view of the many callbacks to earlier (and, IMO, better) books in the series.

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