Friday, 27 May 2016

Review: Star Nomad

Star Nomad Star Nomad by Lindsay Buroker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Disclosure: I received a free review copy from the author.

I've been a fan of Lindsay Buroker's fantasy novels for some time now, and happily followed her into this new space opera series, because I've found her work consistently entertaining. Also, though I haven't read as much of it lately, I'm a space opera fan from of old, having grown up on Andre Norton and loved Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan books.

Norton, Bujold, and C.L. Moore's Northwest Smith are in the lineage of this series, not to mention a little bit of Star Wars, though without the hokey ancient religion or laser swords. We have asteroid miners, the aftermath of a civil war (Alliance versus Empire), artificial gravity, various kinds of weapons including energy weapons, enhanced cyborg soldiers, power armour... it's all good stuff. We also have an ex-military officer with an old spaceship and a ragtag crew, just trying to make it back to where her young daughter is so they can be together (her husband was a civilian casualty of the war), and encountering - and overcoming - obstacles at every turn.

The characters are quirky, smart, brave, principled and constantly bickering, which is what I've come to happily expect from a Buroker book. The cyborg soldier distinctly reminds me of the assassin Sicarius from the Emperor's Edge series: emotionally closed off, laconic to the point of curt, unstoppably deadly, but with his own powerful set of principles. The space captain is, however, more assured and capable than Amaranthe early in the same series, and none the worse for it. She makes a great scrappy underdog, badly outgunned but forced by circumstances to forge difficult alliances and triumph through courage and intelligence, and that's how I like my heroes.

The political background is well, if briefly, handled. The Empire was totalitarian and repressive, and the Alliance fought long and hard to break it; since the viewpoint character was an Alliance officer, we mostly get that perspective, but the cyborg, who was an Imperial officer, gets to say his piece about how the Empire maintained order, and now everything is falling apart and pirates and warlords are causing chaos and suffering. Though it isn't dwelled on, it's a more sophisticated political background than a lot of light SFF has - and gives us a chance to encounter plenty of pirates and warlords.

I understand that this is the first of a series, and that the other books will be launching very soon after this one. I will definitely be picking them up.

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Thursday, 19 May 2016

Review: The Duchess War

The Duchess War The Duchess War by Courtney Milan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I saw this book recommended on a blog post somewhere which encouraged people who don't read romance to give it a try. I occasionally read fantasy or SF that has a romance plot in it, so I thought I'd see what straight (historical) romance was like.

It's good. The editing is clean, which means I can relax and focus on the story. Romance, as I understand it, is all about the relationship between the characters, and that is certainly what you get here; there are events, but they are there to drive, complicate, or illuminate the relationship.

One problem I sometimes have with romance is that the couple concerned don't seem like attractive people to me. The woman is some combination of weaksauce, stupid, or an emotional mess; the man is a heartless brute; together, they fight crime - I mean, bonk like rabbits. I'm glad to say that was definitely not a problem here. The female lead is clever and determined, level-headed, and generally admirable, though not overly perfect or without problems; she isn't ridiculously beautiful, she has believable emotional issues from her past, and she struggles with the decisions she must make for powerful reasons that made sense for her character and situation. The male lead is kind, open-minded, and respectful of women in general and the female lead in particular; he, too, is messed up by his background in ways that drive the plot. (However, I did think that he made a remarkably stupid decision at one point that teetered on the edge of being driven by the plot rather than making complete emotional sense.)

I flirted with the idea of giving it five stars, but in the end didn't, because just occasionally the illusion slipped, and I was reminded that I was reading something written in the 21st century by an American, but set in 1860s Britain. The most glaring example was when the duke says "that was dumb", something that I suspect very few British dukes would say even today; but there were a few others. I also wondered, and never found out, where the characters got their sex education, and why they appeared to be so comfortable with their sexuality. All of this made it more like watching a play (where you have to consciously suspend your disbelief that the painted backdrop is a drawing room) than watching a movie shot on location. Still enjoyable, but more mental work.

Notwithstanding that, a fine effort, and I recommend it.

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Friday, 6 May 2016

Review: Futuristica: Volume 1

Futuristica: Volume 1 Futuristica: Volume 1 by Metasagas Press
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Disclosure: I received an advance review copy from the publisher because I have a story in Volume 2.

These are some fine stories, and I'm honestly flattered to be in such good company. Although the authors are not yet well known, I have a feeling that many of them eventually will be.

This is just the kind of science fiction I like: fresh ideas interestingly and competently explored, in a way that leaves you both thought-provoked and emotionally moved (sometimes disturbed). A few are funny; a few are horrific; most of them are just straight-out engaging. When they use tropes, and sometimes they do, they often twist them or mash them up in unexpected ways, and a good many of them combine more than one near-future or current technology trend.

A couple did break my suspension of disbelief. Daryna Yakusha, in "Felis Helianthus", shows us an Internet without cat photos, for example. I'm actually kidding about that one, but Robert Lowell Russell's closing mecha-mercenaries story, "Love That Easy Money", gave me a few fridge moments, and the more I thought about it the more plot holes it seemed to have. That's not to say it wasn't moving, in its own way.

A lot of the stories show us futures where people are struggling, often because of climate change. Megan Chaudhuri's "Sterile Technique", for example, takes themes of vat-grown meat and infectious prions and places it within a story of human struggle, love, family, conflict and working for difficult employers. James Beamon's "Whole Lives in Hammered Fragments" takes tropes that have seen more use than most of those in the other stories - poor asteroid miners exploited by corporations, rebellion of the space colonies against Earth - and does something fresh with them, again bringing family in as a strong theme. Then we get the humorous "End of My Rope" by Holly Schofield, which is literally about herding cats (and space trade with difficult aliens, and intelligence enhancement).

Patrice Sarath's "Murder on the Hohmann" is in the mould of classic murder-on-the-isolated-transport stories, whether that transport is an oceangoing ship or the Orient Express. But it has a clever twist, which takes the mystery trope of "everyone has something to hide that makes them a suspect" in a fresh direction.

L. Chan's "Coin Toss" plays with AI, cryptocurrency and another family connection. Wole Talabi's "If They Can Learn" does something clever with AI training and systemic racism. Both give us nonwestern locales and protagonists, something it's good to see more of in SF.

L. H. Davis's "Shoot Him Daddy" mashes up alien invasion and redneck zombie apocalypse survival, but with a romance element, and does a fine job with tension. Marina Berlin's "Life and Death in the Frozen City" features a courtesan who must make a difficult choice in an occupied country. Anne E. Johnson's "Dreamwire", by contrast, shows us a trust fund princess obsessed with body modification, and what happens when she takes it too far.

Nancy S.M. Waldman's "Hu.man and Best" is set after the end of a robot uprising, and once again brings in themes of family and caring for the young. Ciro Faienza's "The Soma Earth" is a cli-fi story featuring scientific agriculture which touches on racism and the culture of criminal gangs, while Mary Mascari's "Debugging Bebe" does something completely different with scientific agriculture, cultural tradition from a very different place, and social class and privilege.

Mike Morgan's "Something to Watch Over Us" involves half-Japanese people in Japan; AI; and what happens when a corporate wellbeing program works a little too well. It's amusing. So, in a darker way, is Stephanie Burgis's "Mums' Group", with very different protagonists: young mothers in a British city of the fairly near future, also interacting with AIs that are supposed to give guidance for social good, but with an entirely different outcome.

Bo Balder's "Even Paradise Needs Maintenance" crosses the world again to Australia, with downloadable skills, universal income, ocean cleanup, alien trade, remote avatars, and libertarianesque religious states which produce inept terrorists. She runs all those elements through a blender and produces a good adventure story.

E. E. King's "Light-Years from Now" is a lovely first-contact story, set in the present day, with an underlying theme of accepting difference. And Gary Kloster's "Llamacide" is a hilarious tale of brain hacking, which makes the most of the parallel between debugging a program and solving a mystery.

All in all, I'm greatly encouraged that there are so many good stories being written in SF by so many diverse, widely scattered writers. There's plenty of life left in the old field, is the message I take from this collection, and will be for many years to come.

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Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Review: Three Wells of the Sea

Three Wells of the Sea Three Wells of the Sea by Terry Madden
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An old-school portal fantasy, harking back to the roots of all portal fantasy, as introduced by George MacDonald: the Celtic Otherworld. I don't usually read portal stories or Celtic fantasy any more, but this was a good one.

There are two protagonists, one in each world, and both of them are focussed on the same man in two versions. A rebellious schoolboy in our world's California knows the man as his teacher and mentor; to a druid in the Otherworld, he is the king to whom she is bound. Life and death, evil schemes, war, courage, loss, love, all crash together in a satisfying manner. The characters are vivid, and driven by their internal issues, not the demands of a pre-scripted plot.

Originally I added it to my "Well-edited" shelf, but I ended up removing it, thanks to a few dangling modifiers, incorrect word choices (mindless/heedless, clamboured/clamoured, timber/timbre, sheath/sheathe), a couple of misplaced apostrophes, occasional missing commas, and some comma splices. We get a few sudden medievalisms among the ancient Celtic details: squire, palfrey, surcoat, even a corset. At one point vambraces (armour for the arms) cover somebody's knuckles. These are minor and occasional distractions in a book that mostly reads smoothly and well, and I look forward to reading the sequel.

I received this book at no charge through an association with the publisher.

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Review: Shattered Past

Shattered Past Shattered Past by Lindsay Buroker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Whenever I'm having trouble settling on a book to read because I'm not in the mood for heavy, serious books, I'm always relieved if I find a Lindsay Buroker on my Kindle that I've autobought when it came out, and set aside for just such an emergency.

That was the case with this book. A minor antagonist from earlier books in the series becomes a main character, and gets a romance with the cousin of his rival. It does a nice job of humanising a grouchy and difficult established character and making us like him, while providing the usual enjoyable Buroker mix of banter, adventure, capable female characters and ancient magical science.

I was pleased, also, to see the author changing up the formula a little for this one. In past books in the series, both participants in the romance have tended to be lacking in self-confidence in a way that they completely hide from the other party, and this is what keeps them apart. Here, the elements that keep them apart are not that, and are not the same for the two characters.

The writing keeps getting better, too (she's certainly getting plenty of practice). I noticed a few word choice issues ("sheered" for "sheared", "cogent" for "coherent" and "macerated" for "lacerated"), but this is very minor in what is, overall, a good piece of craft and consistently entertaining.

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Friday, 22 April 2016

Review: Funny Fantasy

Funny Fantasy Funny Fantasy by Alex Shvartsman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read a pre-release version of this collection, supplied by the publisher for beta reading purposes.

There's not enough truly funny fantasy around, and I applaud Alex Shvartsman for wanting to increase the prominence of the subgenre, not only by what he writes himself but by his work as an editor. Not only does he edit the Unidentified Funny Objects anthologies of new humorous SFF, but he's now started collecting previously published works (which did not appear in UFO) as well, and this volume is one of those collections.

I'm a tough audience for comedy, and look for something more than just a parody of the usual tropes with a few silly names thrown in. By and large, the stories in this volume provided that something more, with stories that worked as stories as well as being funny. I was particularly delighted to see an example of "Runyonesque," a style of which I'm very fond, in Mike Resnick's "A Very Special Girl". (Someone should really do an anthology of Runyonesque. There was a lovely one from Maria Dahvana Headley last year, and I've read several others.)

The tone of the stories covers the usual range, from full of casual mayhem (most notably Jim C. Hines, "The Blue Corpse Corps") to sweet and warm (Gail Carriger's "Fairy Debt"); from really just playing with the tropes, but doing it well (Laura Resnick's "Dave the Mighty Steel-Thewed Avenger") to more original (“Librarians in the Branch Library of Babel,” by Shaenon K. Garrity; “The Queen's Reason” by Richard Parks).

The editor notes in his introduction that, in his experience, funny science fiction tends to be social satire, while funny fantasy plays with the genre tropes more. I don't know that this is necessarily true (even in this collection, there's some strong social satire in Tim Pratt's "Another End of the Empire"); I think the best of both funny SF and funny fantasy do both, and also tell a compelling story. I'm talking, of course, about Douglas Adams and, even more so, Terry Pratchett. Perhaps part of the problem is that when a story also has great character development and a well-thought-out plot we usually don't banish it to the "funny" ghetto, but consider it a fantasy or SF novel with a strong humour element. I'm thinking here of authors like Connie Willis.

All this to say that, though I didn't find any of these stories hilarious, or groundbreaking, or outstanding examples of the fantasy genre, I did enjoy them. I would like to see the standard for funny fantasy gradually ratchet up, though, and become more than having fun with genre tropes, and some, though by no means all, of the stories in this collection do attempt that.

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Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Review: Year's Best SF

Year's Best SF Year's Best SF by David G. Hartwell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The first of a distinguished series. While I enjoyed most of the stories, now that I sit down to write the review I realise that I don't remember many of them, and I only finished it the other day.

The novella Hot Times in Magma City by Robert Silverberg is one of the memorable ones. While the premise is unlikely - people in a recovery program acting as emergency responders, as part of their community service in a Los Angeles wracked with volcanic activity - it's a powerful story. Told from the viewpoint of the group's leader, it shows the addicts trying to pull themselves together as they meet the challenges of their task, and more or less succeeding.

"Downloading Midnight", by William Browning Spencer, an author I haven't encountered before as far as I remember, is a cyberpunk novelette with a noir feel. It suffers from one of the usual issues with cyberpunk - the difficulty of explaining why people in cyberspace are in any actual danger - but manages to handwave it adequately and tell a good human story.

"Coming of Age in Karhide", by Ursula K. Le Guin, is the only one in the volume I remember reading before (in the author's collected short fiction, I think). It's one of her mind-stretching ones, set in the same world as The Left Hand of Darkness (where people periodically change gender), and very much a "this is what it's like to grow up in this setting" piece rather than a strongly plotted, linear story. Such is Le Guin's mastery of style and ability to convey feeling that it works anyway.

The remaining story in the volume that I can remember without looking at the book is the novella The Ziggurat, by Gene Wolfe. I'm on record as saying that I seldom understand or like Wolfe's stories, but maybe I'm getting used to them; I didn't hate this, and I followed it pretty well. The problem I have with Wolfe, though, is that his characters always seem alienated from their emotions, and while they will act from emotional reasons, they never seem to express emotions clearly or have emotional self-insight. Also, their actions sometimes seem alien and creepy, partly because of this emotional disconnect; violence comes as if out of nowhere, or, as here, a man decides, seemingly unilaterally, that he and a woman who has been his enemy are going to have a relationship, despite the earlier death-dealing violence between her group and his. It's as if all his characters are somewhere on the autism spectrum, or as if I am (which I'm not) whenever I read a Wolfe story.

Since I picked this up for 99c, I wasn't disappointed, but later volumes had a higher proportion of memorable stories.

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