Friday, 15 June 2018

Review: Penric's Fox

Penric's Fox Penric's Fox by Lois McMaster Bujold
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Another installment in the novella series, jumping back in time to between Penric and the Shaman and Penric's Mission. This time it's a mystery, and a decently handled one; Bujold can write a good mystery, as we've seen in some of her Vorkosigan books. It's a kind of fantasy police procedural, in which the fantasy elements are essential to the plot; both the motive for the murder and the approach to solving it rely on them.

Like the other Penric books, I enjoyed it without feeling that it ever approached the heights of Bujold's best works. The emotional stakes are lower, somehow, the emotional depths shallower, the insights less remarkable. It was good, but never threatened to become great.

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Review: The Story Peddler

The Story Peddler The Story Peddler by Lindsay A. Franklin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book managed to sneak a dystopia onto my reading list, which is quite a feat; and, even more impressively, it also managed to make me enjoy it.

The trope of forbidden magic is overplayed, but this was a good variation on it: magic users/artists who are given the choice by an oppressive regime of being either co-opted or suppressed. The protagonist, a determined and capable young woman (my favourite kind of protagonist), takes the option "neither of the above" and connects up with other dissidents, while the despot's daughter struggles to temper his tyranny. Eventually, the two story threads connect, leading to a climax which took me by surprise with its suddenness.

Well crafted, with characters that deepen beyond their stereotypes because they all have a backstory and all want something, which they're prepared to pursue at personal cost. There's no softpedaling in terms of the outcomes for the characters - several of them come to tragic ends - but it skillfully avoids becoming dark, hopeless, or cynical.

Not quite amazing enough to make it to five stars, but certainly very good, and I expect to include it in my Year's Best list this year.

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Review: Burn

Burn Burn by James Patrick Kelly
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

James Patrick Kelly is an excellent craftsman of the short story, but this novella introduced too much while resolving too little. I found the behaviour of the protagonist's wife inexplicable, and it was unclear what anyone wanted or was trying to achieve - nor did anyone seem to achieve much.

It seems to have been primarily intended as a (excuse the pun) burn on Thoreau, but there was no real substantive critique of the utopia built on Thoreau's ideas, and not much exploration of its ideology, despite plenty of opportunity. Missing the chance to be a novel of ideas, it also failed to have much of a plot or explore character in any depth, and I was left wondering what the point of it was.

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Wednesday, 6 June 2018

Review: Zero Sum Game

Zero Sum Game Zero Sum Game by S.L. Huang
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Extremely well done, but too murdery for my taste.

Often, when I get ARCs from Netgalley, I have to make a concerted effort to ignore the copy editing issues (in the hope that they'll be fixed by publication time) and focus on the actual story. Not in this case. The ARC is practically spotless. Not only that, but it displays excellent writing craft; it's polished, professional, slick.

It's difficult to say precisely what the genre is here. Is the protagonist technically a superhero, given her incredible real-time mathematical ability which enables her to perform staggering physical feats and makes her a crack shot (and given the villain's powers as well)? Is it a contemporary SF thriller? An urban fantasy with mental powers instead of magic? It could be any of the three.

It has the feel of a blockbuster movie, with lots of chases, guns, and explosions... and a high body count - which, for me, was a problem. One of the characters hangs a lampshade on the fact that the protagonist's first cut at a solution to a problem is generally to shoot someone, but even after she starts trying not to do that so much, she still does it. Of the 29 people killed in a citywide disaster at one point, she killed at least four of them.

Another character, the only one she trusts, is a psychopath with no human emotion who kills even more people, but he at least has a moral structure, albeit a rather odd one, to guide him in who he does and doesn't hurt. The main character vaguely feels that maybe not murdering so many people would be preferable, but doesn't act on that feeling too much. She also never even comes close to being arrested for any of her many murders.

In the end, even though the writing itself is close to flawless, this deep flaw in the main character was too much for me, and I dinged the book a star based on my personal preference against antiheroes.

Disclaimers: I am on a writers' forum with S.L. Huang. I received a copy via Netgalley for review.

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Wednesday, 30 May 2018

Review: Fair Coin

Fair Coin Fair Coin by E.C. Myers
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is, for the most part, a capably-written YA novel with a speculative present-day setting, and I did enjoy it.

I had a couple of problems with it, though. The first was one of belief. I seem to be having a lot of those lately, for some reason; I just find it hard to suspend my disbelief when I'm confronted with something that doesn't make sense, particularly when it seems as if it doesn't make sense because it's been created entirely in the service of the plot, and not because it arises in any way organically from the situation. I'm going to need some spoiler tags here.

(view spoiler)

The other thing I had a problem with is that this book exhibits a strong Wyldstyle effect, by which I mean that the protagonist is rather dense, not particularly courageous, and fairly self-absorbed (though he experiences some growth in moral courage and concern for others in the course of the story); meanwhile, there's a female character who is much smarter, more effective, more interesting, and in all ways more fitted to be the protagonist, but never gets to be anything more than the love interest and protagonist's prize.

(view spoiler)

I put this on my "await ebook price drop" wishlist some time ago because of a recommendation from somewhere, I think a blog or podcast, based partly on its having won a major award. But given those two significant issues, I don't think I will go on to read the sequel, and while it was good enough to deserve four stars, it doesn't get any awards from me.

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Monday, 21 May 2018

Review: New Seeds of Contemplation

New Seeds of Contemplation New Seeds of Contemplation by Thomas Merton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I deliberately read this very slowly, a few paragraphs at a time, letting it soak.

It's an odd book. Some chapters I wanted to quote in their entirety; others I could have done without completely. Sometimes the author seems deeply insightful; other times, he seems like someone who thinks he's deeply insightful but is actually just opinionated.

It doesn't have a single argument or a single direction. It kind of wanders around, sometimes on topic, other times not so much.

At its best, it directs the reader towards a profound contemplation that's beyond words, symbols, forms, and any possibility of description. At its worst, it's the ramblings of a mid-20th-century Catholic with all the limitations of worldview that implies.

On the whole, I recommend it to people who are interested, as I am, in the Centering Prayer tradition and similar movements, but there are better (by which I mean, more immediately practical and better structured) books around from people such as Cynthia Bourgeault, Thomas Keating, and Richard Rohr.

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Friday, 18 May 2018

Review: Summerland

Summerland Summerland by Hannu Rajaniemi
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I sampled this author's Quantum Thief, but bounced off it because it was both very high-concept and in a setting with a lot of new things in it that aren't immediately explained. This one is high-concept, but the setting is more understandable: the world of British espionage in an alternate 1930s, in which Lodge and Marconi have discovered a way to talk to the dead and to help people who die to remain conscious on the Other Side. There's a rivalry in Britain between the dead spies of the Summer Court and the live ones of the Winter Court. Lenin has formed the core of a powerful collective dead consciousness in the Soviet Union known as the Presence, and Stalin, exiled, is trying to undermine the Communists throughout Europe without exactly selling out to the West. There are lots of double agents, including the illegitimate son of the Prime Minister - the PM in question being fairly obviously based on H.G. Wells.

It's skillfully done, and threads the difficult needle of having disillusioned, unhappy characters who still strive to be better, or to do something worthwhile. That helped me to relate to them as protagonists. They inhabited a grey world, but not a completely hopeless or pointless one.

One of the main characters was the PM's illegitimate son, already mentioned; the other was a female agent who had been consistently passed over and not taken seriously because of her gender. When she discovers from a Russian defector that the PM's son has been turned, nobody believes her, and she has to decide who she can trust to help her bring him down.

Cue lots of complicated maneuvering and spycraft, along with some original worldbuilding around the concept of the conscious dead.

The plot managed to be complex and yet comprehensible, another thing that's hard to do. Overall, both impressive and enjoyable.

I received a copy from Netgalley for review.

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