Sunday, 26 October 2014

Review: Owl and the Japanese Circus


Owl and the Japanese Circus
Owl and the Japanese Circus by Kristi Charish

My rating: 3 of 5 stars



I received a pre-publication copy via Netgalley for purposes of review. (Accordingly, there is a chance that the editing issues I mention will be resolved before publication.)

This is an action-packed urban fantasy starring an antiquities thief, something between Indiana Jones and Lana Croft, only more obviously outside the law than either. It's fast-paced and entertaining, though the bits about translating the scroll are obvious technobabble to anyone who knows anything about linguistics, and there are a few other issues.

Firstly, there are some very strange vocabulary errors: summarized/surmised, appraise/apprise, enacted/enforced, distinct/distinctive, lead/led, glazed over/glossed over, damper down/damp down, you're/your, up/us, my/me and check/cheek (typos), friend's/friends', one/one's, consciously/in good conscience, reprise/reprieve, anymore/any more, succubi or incubi/succubus or incubus, conjugated/I have no idea, but probably not conjugated. As I say, hopefully these will be resolved before publication. I suspect that they're the remainder of a much larger number that have mostly been corrected. There are a few fumbled full stops and quotation marks, about the usual percentage.

More significant, to me, were the character issues. The story, as usual with urban fantasy, is told in first person by the protagonist, and the protagonist, also as usual, is a smart-mouthed woman who keeps getting herself in trouble by making stupid decisions. She tells us so over and over again, in fact. Now, I'm fine with all of this except the stupid decisions part. I never have much respect for female characters who make stupid, headstrong decisions that keep placing them in need of rescue by their sketchy-seeming, more powerful, more skilful, all-around more awesome love interest (who has A Secret that will Shock You, though it will probably be obvious to you a lot earlier than it is to the protagonist). It's true that she's competent in her field (perhaps unbelievably so; archaeology, like any discipline, has many parts to it, and people specialize early, so it's not really credible that she knows so much about so many different times and places and languages). What she's not competent at is doing anything remotely sensible that would keep her from getting beaten up or killed. And since she doesn't have the power of, for example, Harry Dresden, but is just a vanilla human, her survival to the end of the book is... let's say unlikely on the face of it.

I liked the cat, though. The cat rocked. Even if, in one scene, she started out with the cat on a leash accompanying her, and by the end of the scene he'd been with her friend the whole time. And even if he can open a window on the 23rd floor of a Vegas casino hotel (which generally don't have opening windows, do they?).

I did enjoy it, in a popcorn sort of way, and I've seen much worse. In all honesty, though, with so many problems I can't bring myself to give it four stars. It's a high three.



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Friday, 24 October 2014

Review: Fantastic Stories Presents: Fantasy Super Pack #1


Fantastic Stories Presents: Fantasy Super Pack #1
Fantastic Stories Presents: Fantasy Super Pack #1 by Robert E. Howard

My rating: 4 of 5 stars



This enormous collection of 34 stories presumably showcases the taste of the editor of Fantastic Stories of the Imagination, a relatively new prozine. As I'm interested in submitting to the magazine, I picked it up, and thoroughly enjoyed most of the stories, none of which I remembered reading before, though I'd heard of several of them.

I like stories that have a narrative arc, that build tension and then resolve it at the end, more than the currently-fashionable type of story that just stops at a thematic moment (or, I often suspect, when the author runs out of ideas). Based on this collection, this editor also likes the narrative-arc kind of story. Some of the stories had fairly predictable endings, I found, one or two fluffed about for a while before getting to the ending, and there were comparitively few twists (though there were a couple), but usually the tension was well maintained and satisfactorily resolved.

The editor is also clearly fond of the old Weird Tales style, and the Cthulhu Mythos in particular. This may account for the appearance of what I consider the one bad story in the bunch, Colleen Douglas's "Beyond Kadath", an almost plotless piece of amateurish Lovecraft fanfiction, rife with comma-splices.

The editor, in fact, is clearly better at picking good stories than at copy editing. Some of the stories have obviously been set from old printed books by optical character recognition, because they have the characteristic errors that that process produces, sitting there uncaught. There are, in several stories, missing or misplaced quotation marks. There are missing words, homonym errors (discrete/discreet, illusive/elusive, chords/cords, wretched/retched), and so forth. It's not in every story - most of the writers are good enough not to make the mistakes, but when they make them, or the OCR process makes them, the editor misses them, at least some of the time.

Leaving those cavils aside, especially for the price this is an excellent anthology, almost a quarter of a million words and, in my opinion, only one really bad story in the bunch.

This isn't just a fantasy collection. There are science fiction stories, and, as I mentioned, horror of the Weird Tales kind, mostly ghost stories and Mythos. There's sword and sorcery (Robert E. Howard's "Red Nails", for example, a Conan story with the trademark adolescent wish-fulfilment of the all-powerful, muscular barbarian picking up busty women, but the man could certainly write action). There's humour. Several of the stories involve time travel, while others deal in one way or another with the Fae, and might be called urban fantasy. There are a couple of post-apocalyptics, some of what I call "fantastica" (more or less surreal stories where the magic isn't rational), even a couple where the fantastical element is arguably in the mind of the viewpoint character. These disparate elements form a rich gumbo in which no two consecutive stories are alike. The more so since older stories are intermingled with more recent ones (in strict alternation, at first, though that pattern later breaks down); the most common decades represented are the 1950s, the 1930s, the 1990s and the 2000s, but every decade since 1910, except for the 1970s and 1980s, has at least one story. There's one original story in the volume, the rest are reprints. There's a mix, too, of famous writers like James Blish, Frederik Pohl, Philip K. Dick, Fritz Leiber, Stanley Weinbaum, Clifford Simak, Philip Jose Farmer, August Derleth, Clark Ashton Smith, Lester Del Rey and, of course, H.P. Lovecraft, alongside writers I hadn't heard of, but whose stories mostly stood up to the high company they kept.

Older stories, of course, tend to be about straight white men, so it's not a big surprise to find a lot of those. Some of the newer stories feature more women or non-white characters, but I didn't spot any gay characters, if that's something you look for in your stories.

Inevitably, the older stories in particular sometimes fall into classic trope patterns: the deal with the devil that goes wrong ("No Strings Attached"), the equivalent of the Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's court ("A Knyght Ther Was"), comic trouble with fantasy critters ("Pest Control"). The authors usually do something interesting and different with the trope, though, and in a few cases I suspect that the trope became popular originally because of the story represented here, such as "Worlds of If" (1935), an alternate-worlds tale by Stanley Weinbaum.

Overall, a varied and enjoyable collection, which makes me want to subscribe to Fantastic Stories of the Imagination. I suspect that's part of the point; if so, mission accomplished.



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Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Review: Time Travel: Recent Trips


Time Travel: Recent Trips
Time Travel: Recent Trips by Paula Guran

My rating: 4 of 5 stars



I received a pre-publication copy of this book via Netgalley for purposes of review.

Anthologies are usually a mixed bag, and this one is no exception, but, like the same editor's [b:Magic City: Recent Spells|20299673|Magic City Recent Spells|Paula Guran|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1391041549s/20299673.jpg|28133245], in this one the good outweighed the bad for me.

The time travel methods varied, from handwavium to technobabble to believing really hard, but I don't go to a time travel anthology looking for hard science.

Personally, I didn't get a lot from the overly academic survey of time travel literature that forms the editor's introduction, mire because of its dry style than because of its content.

Bandana Singh's "With Fate Conspire" is set in a post-apocalyptic (cli-fi) India, where scientists are using the abilities of an illiterate woman to connect to an earlier time in case that will help change history for the better. It's a story more enjoyable for its journey than its destination, a "soft ending" story, but well told.

Steve Rasnic Tem's "Twember" could have done with more polishing (and will hopefully get it before the final version is released); it has a few minor errors and awkward phrases. There's a passage of philosophical musing which doesn't fit the character speaking it at all, and overall I found it one of those dreary stories in which unhappy characters don't do anything.

Ken Liu's "The Man Who Ended History: a Documentary" has all the elements I've come to expect from a Liu story. Not only the East Asian setting and characters, but the importance of family, the heartrending events, and the infodumps. This one was so heartrending that I couldn't read much of it (I have a low tolerance for torture and grimness), but I read enough to encounter an odd moment. It's cast as a documentary, as the title suggests, and one of the things about writing in this format is that you have to show, not tell (even if the characters are telling, they're doing so in dialogue). Yet Liu manages to slip a "tell" passage in anyway. Describing one of the interviewees, he gives us information about the man's motivation for teaching that we could not possibly get by watching a documentary, where all we have is people's appearance and their words. It's a strange slip from such a skilled craftsman, but if Liu has a fault, it's infodumping.

Kage Baker's "The Carpet Beds of Sutro Park" takes an apparently trivial topic - a public park, its decline, and the woman whose passion for it takes over her life - and, observing it through the eyes of a man who has been rendered effectively autistic by an immortality treatment, makes me care. That takes skill, and I applaud it.

Dale Bailey's "Mating Habits of the Late Cretaceous" was, I felt, two stories. One was a "literary" story of a woman whose marriage is failing for reasons she can't understand (probably her own selfishness and emotional ineptitude), and which she seems unable to do anything about, and the bad decisions she makes. It wasn't to my taste; such stories aren't. The other is an SF story about a resort in the Late Cretaceous where, for obscene amounts of money, one can see dinosaurs. It wasn't filled out enough to stand on its own, but the two stories, like the couple in them, seemed separated by an unbridged gulf and never really worked together.

Yoon Ha Lee's "Blue Ink" felt, to me, incomplete and inconclusive, a slice of life with little plot. That's not to say I disliked it; it just left me not fully satisfied.

John Shirley's "Two Shots from Fly's Photo Gallery" is one of the "travel in time by believing really hard" stories, but the story itself is well handled. A man who has lost his wife to suicide goes back to the gunfight at the OK Corral to save one of her ancestors, in the hope that this will change her family history for the better, and discovers that ultimately you can't save people.

Tom Purdom's "The Mists of Time", by contrast, provides a counter to the prevailing cynicism of our culture that says that everyone has base motives, no matter what it looks like, and there are no real heroes. It's also a good story in the interesting-plot sense.

Howard Waldrop's "The King of Where-I-Go" surprised me, and not in a good way. I don't expect a story by an old hand like Waldrop to be dull, rambling and confused, but this was. It needed a good cut and polish. I'm reasonably sure it doesn't get the science right, either, in terms of how long it takes for polio vaccine to provide protection.

Genevieve Valentine's "Bespoke" may have had a point, but I didn't notice it. It might have been something about fiddling while Rome burned. Competently written, but landed very softly.

Mary Robinette Kowal's "First Flight" has a good premise: you can only time travel within your own lifetime, so to go back to the Wright Brothers' first sustained flight you need a feisty grandmother. She gets off a great zinger at the end. Needs a few phrases corrected or polished.

Charlie Jane Anders' "The Time Travel Club" is, as I now expect from Anders, clever and funny and about losers. Not hopeless losers, though, not completely. I enjoyed it.

Paul Cornell's "The Ghosts of Christmas", though littered with interrobangs and confusing the terms schizoid and schizophrenic, is a fascinating story about memory, about how we change over our lifetimes, and about how we influence our families (especially at memorable times like holidays). Good premise, too.

Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette's "The Ile of Dogges" is a new take on the old idea of using time travel to rescue lost art, in this case an Elizabethan satire. The censor who can't quite bring himself to destroy a seditious play because it's so good is a wonderful character.

Kristine Katherine Rush's "September at Wall and Broad" is another piece that needs correction and polishing before publication, to smooth some awkward phrases and correct the mispunctuation of "United State's" and the misspelling of "chauffeur". I usually find that stories that have a lot of copy editing errors don't work well for me in other ways, and this is an example. The mystery ends up only half solved, and neither candidate for protagonist does much that's protagonistic.

Eileen Gunn's "Thought Experiment" is another think-yourself-through-time story. I felt the ending was a touch rushed, but generally enjoyed it.

Suzanne J. Willis's "Number 73 Glad Avenue" is surreal, but in a way I enjoyed. It's the lead-in to a novel, and I'll be watching for that.

Michael Moorcock's "The Lost Canal" is another disappointment from a master from whom I expect better. Full of telling and infodumping and references to stories that aren't this story and probably don't exist, its premise full of absurdities, its prose littered with exclamation points, it wasn't a good way to close the volume. I felt much the same way about the Ian McDonald story from the same retrofuture-Mars anthology ([b:Old Mars|15849699|Old Mars|George R.R. Martin|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1360812677s/15849699.jpg|21595902]).

Speaking of sources, this is a reprint anthology. I was initially surprised, given the large number of mentions of Lightspeed, Strange Horizons and Clarkesworld in the resumes of the authors (and the soft endings of some of them, which I associate with those magazines), to read that more of these stories came from Asimov's than any other source. But then, where would you send a time travel story?

I've been critical of the individual stories in this volume, and some didn't work for me at all, but the collection as a whole I enjoyed. If, like me, you like to explore the idea of time travel, it's a good way to do so.



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Saturday, 18 October 2014

Review: Tales of the Left Hand, Book 2


Tales of the Left Hand, Book 2
Tales of the Left Hand, Book 2 by John Meagher

My rating: 4 of 5 stars



I enjoyed this, though less so than the first book.

One of the problems with Book 2 of a fantasy series that's planned to be at least a trilogy is that it can contract Two Towers Syndrome, and be about people moving around and getting in position for the next book. We've had our introductions in Book 1, now Book 2 is "people travelling and their adventures along the way".

There are plenty of adventures along the way here, though they take a little while to get started. There are sword fights and a ship chase and a murderous bigot and desperate magic that goes horribly wrong. I'm not saying the story wasn't exciting, just that it was more transitional than it was conclusive.

The other thing I wasn't so keen on was the worldbuilding. I'm not a fan of the worldbuilding approach where the author takes whole Earth cultures - or the stereotypes about them - and just uses them unaltered. It annoyed me a little in the first book, but there it was mainly the accents and names of the people from various islands - there was a German one, a French one and so forth. (I'm listening to the Podiobooks version, narrated by the author, and different accents is part of how he distinguishes the characters. His voice work is very good, by the way.)

Here, though, we have a captain from the "French" culture, and he actually drops French words into his speech (and is a wine snob). We have a "Caribbean" character, as well, who speaks in a wince-inducing patois and wears dreadlocks. (He also, for some reason, speaks about himself in the third person, always an irritating habit in a character.) He comes within about an inch of being a Magical Negro, in fact, though the usual fate of the black character is barely averted by another trope: magical ability discovered under pressure.

So, less successful than Book 1, for me. Still, it's a good adventure yarn at its core, and I'll stick with it for Book 3.



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Sunday, 12 October 2014

Review: Mabel the Lovelorn Dwarf


Mabel the Lovelorn Dwarf
Mabel the Lovelorn Dwarf by Sherry Peters

My rating: 4 of 5 stars



I went into this book with low expectations. Everything about it, from the premise to the cover, said that someone was having some fun with a few tropes. I expected to be mildly amused, and hoped (more than expected) that it would be basically competent.

Well, I was mildly amused, but the author didn't seem to be trying for comedy; the absurdities of the tropes were played completely straight, not in the sense of "the author is apparently unaware of the absurdity" but in the sense of "the narrating character is unaware of the absurdity, because this is her everyday reality". Female dwarves with beards, dwarf/elf tension, axes - played completely straight. Even the obvious Tolkien references were slipped in as if they were the most natural thing in the world, not with a huge wink and a grin, which I appreciated. It was neither an unreflective tropefest nor a meta deconstruction, but something else, and I'm still not sure what, but I think it worked.

As far as competence goes, the basics are certainly there, particularly in terms of the story. The author credits an editor; as a former editor myself, I know that even a very good editor can miss things in a manuscript with a lot of errors, and this appears to have been the case, since some of the missed edits show evidence of fairly significant sentence-level writing problems in the original. There are a couple of comma splices and a dangling participle, the tense is frequently off, the author uses "anymore" when it should be "any more" (three times), apostrophes occasionally appear in the wrong places, we get "waivered" for "wavered" and the usual finger-slip typos, but I've seen plenty of books much worse - including several from major publishers - and on 90% of the pages I didn't notice any problems at all. There's a continuity error when double rooms somehow become singles, but apart from that, the story makes sense in its own terms. (Note, too, that I'm reading a Netgalley copy, supplied to me for purposes of review, and the final version may not have these issues.)

One of the odd things about it is that, while it's clearly a Tolkienesque, even D&D story, it's at the same time YA women's fiction. The young female dwarf who narrates it is fascinated by movie magazines (they're magical movies), believes she's in love with an elf film actor, has to deal with a bitchy, self-centred best friend who's more attractive than she is, has trouble balancing dating (or rather not dating, and worrying about it), sports, work and trying to figure out who she is while resisting her family's attempts to define her, and gets genuine help from a self-help book. As a man in my late 40s, I'm not the target audience, and I can't say that those particular concerns swept me up into her story, but that's no failure of the author's. It's a perfectly good story, well told.

I did wonder, going in, whether the premise was going to be enough to sustain such a long book. It sounded more like a novella. But I didn't feel that the pace dragged at all, or that it was unnecessarily padded.

Is this my new favourite author? No, but she's not writing for me. For the people she's writing for, she's done a fine job, and I think she'll find success.



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Thursday, 9 October 2014

Review: Stupefying Stories November 2012...


Stupefying Stories November 2012...
Stupefying Stories November 2012... by Samuel M. Johnston

My rating: 4 of 5 stars



I picked this up because the editor is now the editor of Straeon, and recommends reading it if you want to know what he likes. Initially, I sampled it on my Kindle, but I was enjoying the stories enough that I bought it.

Not every story worked for me, but that's usual with any collection, and most of them I enjoyed. If they have a common weakness, it's that the endings are often "soft" rather than decisive.

Overall, they reminded me of the classic mid-century writers Fredric Brown, Robert Sheckley and, occasionally, R.A. Lafferty, suitably updated. That's a good thing, in my book. The premises are often absurd; in a few, that tips over the line into too much absurdity for me, particularly when the absurdities are apparently meant seriously.

"Queen of Sheba" I found well written and well observed.

"Wednesday's Child" was moving and beautiful.

"Snatching Baby Delilah" is one of those stories where you're not completely sure of the narrator's reliability (or sanity) by the end of the story. The Kindle sample finished during this story, and I wanted to know how it ended, so I bought the magazine.

"Nonsense 101" was, indeed, nonsense, but enjoyable. It was the most R.A. Lafferty-like of the stories.

"Lucky" is a real Fredric Brown-style story in its dilemma, and more of a Sheckley in its resolution.

"The Ants Go Marching", though weighted down a bit with excessive detail, especially at the beginning, ends up as a decent parable of colonialism and resistance.

"Lover's Knot" is fantastical and has a wonderful allegorical, dreamlike quality.

"Girl Without a Name" is marred by distracting errors, like the main character's hair being "plated" instead of "plaited". It's post-apocalyptic, something I especially dislike, and overall didn't work well for me as a story.

"Toilet Gnomes at War" is very Fredric Brown, light despite the desperate straits of the protagonist.

"Moondust" is built on two absurdities taken seriously: moondust is a drug, and pilots take it to enable them to make it through long space trips. Didn't work for me. (You definitely do not want a stoned person piloting anything.)

"Citizen Astronauts" is built on multiple absurdities taken seriously. In particular, valuing a business, booking a surgery or anything involving any large project or any branch of government is not going to happen by tomorrow, and, again, you don't just shove an average person into space exploration with no training. I didn't find the ending either convincing or emotionally satisfying either.

"Heartbreath" starts with some confusing language, which at first obscures the fact that it's rather an old trope. It doesn't help that the author manages to misspell the name of one of the characters twice.

"Revolver" is a bit of a mess, several stories crushed into one through a device of reincarnation; part mysticism, part pulp action, and the parts don't fit together well, or work for me individually.

"Office Demons" is a nice parable about something that is obvious very quickly (to the reader much earlier than to the protagonist), but still well told.

"Number Station" is another Brownish story, perhaps too short and with too much "tell".

Do I think I can write a story for Straeon? Yes. Yes, I do, and will enjoy it, too.



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Monday, 6 October 2014

Review: Pratchett's Women


Pratchett's Women
Pratchett's Women by Tansy Rayner Roberts

My rating: 4 of 5 stars



I discovered something about myself by reading this book, which is always a worthwhile thing.

What I discovered was that, although I rejoice greatly at the presence of strong female characters in a book, I don't necessarily notice their absence as much. Now that I'm aware, hopefully that won't be true so much.

Tansy Rayner Roberts, herself an award-winning fantasy author, analyses most (not all) of Terry Pratchett's books from a feminist perspective, and finds them... mixed. She praises the improvement from the early busty bimbos (who were, at least, people with lines and opinions and wants, if still stereotypes) to the later women like Cheery Littlebottom, Lady Sybil, Susan Death and, of course, the witches, while still criticising a few significant slips even in the later volumes of the series.

A notable omission for me was the Moist von Lipwick books, especially Making Money; I would have liked her perspective on Adorabelle Dearheart a.k.a. Spike, on the elderly widow of the banking magnate and on the golem Gladys, who is female only because she decides she is. Moist is mentioned, so I know she's read the books, but the analysis of them is missing.

What is here is an interesting perspective, always personal but with wider resonance, on Pratchett's treatment of female characters. It shows strong signs of its blog-series origins, including the need for an editor; words like "to", "the", "more" and "is" don't always make it from the author's brain to her fingers, and she uses the word "conflagration" when I'm reasonably sure she means "conflation". It's also fairly brief, but none the worse for that (although, as I say, I'd like to see her analysis of the Moist books).

I'd recommend it to anyone who's interested in non-ranty feminist perspectives and fantasy fiction, and who's read the Pratchett books (since there are multiple spoilers).



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