Saturday, 26 November 2016

Review: The Best of All Possible Worlds

The Best of All Possible Worlds The Best of All Possible Worlds by Karen Lord
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is one of those books that are becoming more common these days: thoughtful; slow-moving and mostly low-tension, with occasional bursts of action; good-hearted characters who are essentially early-21st-century liberals in their worldview; beautifully written and impeccably edited; fresh in premise; masterful in execution. Into this nameless and assorted category I would group Ann Leckie's Ancillary series; The Goblin Emperor; A Natural History of Dragons; and Chalice, among books I've read relatively recently.

It's also the kind of modern planetary romance that, say, Sherri S. Tepper or Julian May wrote; not a space opera, because it's not in space, and technically science-fictional, but with psychic powers playing a prominent role. It's even more reminiscent of Ursula K. Le Guin, and I would be astonished if Le Guin was not a huge influence on the author.

Now that I've set it in a context of other books and authors, what is it about? Well, one of the most prominent and highly respected races of humans, in a galaxy with several of those, have lost their planet and most of their people to enemy action. Because, for sociological reasons, more men than women spent time off-planet, there's now a shortage of women among the survivors, and they want to find ways to preserve their culture as well as their genetic heritage. (It turns out late in the book that, because of the way their psychic powers work, they actually don't do well at all if they're not pair-bonded, and they may even become dangerous; but this isn't developed very much.)

Accordingly, on a planet which for various reasons has become a destination for many groups of refugees and displaced people, the proud and self-disciplined race are looking among the cultural groups descended from those of their people who left their planet or were pushed out in the past, in the hope of finding brides. The main character, a local civil servant, is assigned to help them in this quest, and ends up having the universe's least romantic romance with the leader of the search.

Even though I call it an unromantic romance, it was still quite sweet, just as the civil servant was interesting (and wryly funny). The pace is unhurried, but it doesn't feel too stretched out; I wasn't bored, it just wasn't a constant barrage of plot incidents. There are certainly moments of tension, but if tension, passion, conflict and drama are what you mainly look for in a book, you shouldn't look here. They all occur, but, like the events of the plot, they're widely spaced and not, for the most part, built up to any great heights. It's more a thoughtful book than it is a spectacular one, and the overall tone is of warm-hearted maturity.

The title, of course, is from Voltaire's satire Candide, and he took it from Leibnitz; I'm afraid I didn't quite get the significance of the reference. The refuge planet is neither utopian nor dystopian, though it's peaceful, and with a few notable exceptions the people living there are well-disposed towards others.

It took me a while to figure out what the deal was with Earth, and where we were in the timeline. Earth is under a ban, meaning that nobody is meant to interfere with it or make open contact, but I wasn't sure until late in the book whether this was at our time or after it (it appears to be more or less at our time, though it could easily be some time before or after). Various groups have been rescued from disasters on Earth at different times, though, by mysterious guardians, and brought to the planet of refuge, which justifies - I suppose - the fact that most of the cultural references are to Earth culture. It's a bit of a worldbuilding shortcut, if not accompanied by any cultural references to any of the other cultures, and that, for me, was the most noticeable weakness in the book - if you don't count the missed opportunities to build up tension, conflict and drama, and I think that was a deliberate and understandable choice by the author rather than a failure of craft. (I also want to reiterate that those elements were present, just not front and centre.)

I do find, though, that I mostly respect these books more than I love them. Tension and conflict are the salt and fat of literature, and if you have a book that's all salt and fat, then you have literary junk food - meaning that it will be popular, comparatively easy to produce, and profitable, but not critically acclaimed or respected. But there are haute cuisine ways to use salt and fat to enhance the flavour of fine food, and sometimes these more languid books do miss opportunities to bring out their philosophical flavour with better seasoning. It's a tricky balance to strike. You don't want to distract from the reflective, insightful nature of the book by setting off fireworks all the time, but you also want to engage your audience emotionally as well as intellectually. For me, The Best of All Possible Worlds walked that line well, but for other people's taste it will fail.

View all my reviews

Monday, 17 October 2016

Review: Goldenfire

Goldenfire Goldenfire by A.F.E. Smith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I gave the first book in this series five stars, and was eager for the second. Although I didn't enjoy it quite as much, for reasons I'll explore shortly, it's certainly very good and I don't hesitate to recommend it.

Once again, it was impeccably edited; I didn't notice a single error, which is vanishingly rare. I'm lucky if I find one or two books in a hundred where I don't see any errors at all.

The first book managed to juggle seven point-of-view characters, by my count; gave them all distinct arcs; and pulled it off successfully. It also successfully wound a mystery plot, three different romance plots, and a thriller plot closely together, and paid them all off at the end. This book, I felt, was less successful, in part because the characters and plots were not so tightly wound together.

There's still a mystery/thriller plot, which involves an assassin whose identity (and gender) is withheld from the reader for most of the book, with several candidates presented. I did eventually guess the correct one, but not until late in the story. Paradoxically, this single main plotline (with a couple of minor plots involving characters' relationships and some coming-of-age) feels more diffuse than the multiple plot threads in the first book - partly, perhaps, because one of the participants is physically distant, out of the city that was the setting of everything in the first book, and with not much communication with the other viewpoint characters.

Of the seven viewpoint characters in the first book, two are now dead; one doesn't figure in this book (a pity, because I liked her, but I can see where she wasn't needed for this plot); one is still a significant character, but not a viewpoint character' and the remaining three still have viewpoints. In addition, there's the viewpoint of the assassin, and a group of trainees for the Helm elite guard, of whom, by my count, four are major characters, and two of those have viewpoints. There's also another viewpoint character, the training master, who appeared in a minor role in the first book, and another important character, the training master's partner, who doesn't have a viewpoint (mainly in order to preserve the mystery about who the assassin is). So, unless I've miscounted, still seven viewpoint characters, plus four other characters whose actions are significant to the plot but whose viewpoints we don't see into. True, one is the assassin, whose viewpoint we do see, but we don't find out which one until late, so that character almost counts as two: the assassin, who we hear from, but with minimal depth of information in order to preserve the mystery; and the assassin's cover persona, who we only see through the eyes of other characters.

Unlike the first book, where each character had a very different arc, here two of the ten important characters have very similar motivations, though they do resolve them differently.

Having more characters, some of whom don't have viewpoints, some of whom don't have much direct interaction with the others, and two of whom are very similarly motivated, yielded, for me, a less involving story than the first book, where we had deeper insight into a smaller number of characters, all of whose motivations and choices centred around a single set of events from different angles. I can see how this setup was necessary in order to create the mystery around the assassin's identity and provide some red herrings, and that was well done, but I still enjoyed it a little less.

I'm still keen for the third book, and glad to hear that it's now with the publisher. I'll be watching for it to come out.

View all my reviews

Monday, 10 October 2016

Review: A Christmas Gone Perfectly Wrong

A Christmas Gone Perfectly Wrong A Christmas Gone Perfectly Wrong by Cecilia Grant
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I've started reading some romance as preparation for writing it, and found this recommended on a blog - one about feminist romance, I believe. It's very well executed, tightly plotted, and almost flawlessly edited.

Since the setting is Regency England, "feminist" consists of "determined young woman defies social convention and insists on having a voice." This is well done, and I found it believable; the heroine's father, who raised her alone, is something of an eccentric philosopher, paving the way for her to be both naive about society and not strongly inculcated with its norms. Yet she's not a headstrong, egotistical princess; her defiance of convention is always on pragmatic grounds, and well argued. I would call this book an example of male-positive feminism, too, in that (while highlighting that many men are not like this) the hero is respectful of women in general and the heroine in particular, and treats her well throughout. His arc is to loosen up and be more pragmatic and less of a prig, and to consider what he wants as well as what is expected of him; he's neither a brute nor an idiot, something I appreciate in a male romance character.

This is a novella. Sometimes, novellas are novels that haven't been developed enough; other times, they're short stories that have been excessively padded. This is neither. It's a novella because it's executed without a word, a scene, a description or an incident being wasted. Everything is tightly woven together; even the falcon does double duty, as the reason why the hero is at the heroine's house in the first place and as an effective symbol which helps the main characters think about their situation.

Their musings, and the way their thinking about themselves and each other evolves through a series of misadventures, helped to push my rating to five stars, which I don't grant lightly; I only give it to books that are both well executed and also have some depth, and this one qualifies. Without bogging down the plot - indeed, as an essential part of the plot - the characters reflect in quite a profound way about what makes a foundation for a good relationship, and come to good conclusions.

I noticed one single editing mistake (the average number of errors I notice in a book, indie or trad-pub, is about two dozen), and it was a missing quotation mark at about the 72% mark.

Overall, a fine effort, and I'll be looking into the author's other books.

View all my reviews

Friday, 7 October 2016

Review: Darkhaven

Darkhaven Darkhaven by A.F.E. Smith
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Impeccably edited, masterfully plotted - with not one, not two, but three romance subplots; a mystery; intrigue; and some strong thriller elements, all in a lightly sketched but effective early-steampunkish secondary-world fantasy setting. With shifters. And not your usual wolves, either, but wyverns, alicorns and other wondrous beasties.

First, let's talk about the editing. As a copy editor myself, I notice editing errors, and HarperCollins' books are usually full of them. In this, I didn't notice a single one. I suspect that has a lot to do with the author being an editor in her day job, but regardless of the reason, it's rare, and commendable.

The characters are well drawn: conflicted, flawed, sometimes obsessive, but mostly wanting to do the right thing (the exception is an excellently depicted, scarily effective, and believable villain). All seven viewpoint characters have strong, and contrasting, arcs. The plot, with its many moving parts, fits together beautifully, and the author isn't afraid to mix tragic and happy endings. The book both brings all of the threads to a conclusion and sets up the dominoes for a sequel, which I suspect may take place a generation later. And which I will definitely be looking forward to buying, by the way.

The setting isn't especially prominent; it's early industrial age, with coal-powered trams and factories, but guns are new, foreign, and rare. It's mostly background, but what there is of it is sketched competently, and there's plenty of space for development. The shifter parts have great sensawunda as well as a darker, more threatening aspect that helps to drive the plot.

All in all, highly recommended, both for its excellent craft and its compelling story.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Review: Silver on the Road

Silver on the Road Silver on the Road by Laura Anne Gilman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've had this on my Kindle for a while, and just recently felt in the mood for it. It's hard to categorise, which I like; you could call it a "weird Western," but that would give almost completely the wrong impression. It's, among other things, an alternate history, in which a powerful supernatural being, known as "the devil" to people in the neighbouring countries, presides over a land called the Territory that sits between the Mississippi River - border of the United States - and the Spanish lands beyond the Rocky Mountains. Within these borders, various forms of magic, mostly small, and supernatural beings exist. The date appears to be somewhere around 1800.
The book is a coming-of-age story, in which a sixteen-year-old girl, raised in the saloon which is the devil's headquarters, makes an agreement with him to become his Left Hand. This involves travelling the Territory, so she is handed over to a mentor, an experienced rider who is to teach her what she needs to know to travel the roads safely. Together, they discover and must deal with an invading bit of magic which has become dangerous to the Territory and its inhabitants.
The pace is languid, epic-fantasy style, which is probably my main criticism of the book. I prefer a less leisurely narrative, in which the author doesn't take an entire paragraph to say that the protagonist got some coffee and an apple. The chapters (or "parts") are very long, which means that I often stopped reading in the middle of one, sometimes in the middle of a scene in which not much was happening. There will be readers who do this and never come back again.
I kept coming back largely because of the evocative world. One measure, for me, of a book is how many ideas it gives me for my own stories, and this one gave me several - not things I want to directly steal, but new thoughts that were triggered off by an oblique or passing reference. I had the same experience reading Max Gladstone.
The plot itself is a fairly standard coming-of-age fantasy, albeit interestingly genderflipped, and between that and the languid pace, plus a perhaps gratuitous level of hostility to Christianity, it didn't quite make it to five stars for me. It's a strong four, though. I almost gave it my "well-edited" tag, but I spotted 11 minor typos (ranging from a missing period, through common mistypings such as "that" for "than," to word substitutions like "pavement" for "payment," "house" for "hour" and "suspicious" for "suspicions"). They were typos, though, slips of the fingers rather than indications that the author didn't know how to punctuate or what words mean. The prose is highly competent, smooth and evocative, and conveys a good story in a fascinating world.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Review: A Night in the Lonesome October

A Night in the Lonesome October A Night in the Lonesome October by Roger Zelazny
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This review is specifically of the ebook edition published by Farrago in 2016. I'd read this book before, in paperback, I think from the library (since it isn't in my large and battered collection of Zelazny; I'm a considerable fan); but took the opportunity of the ebook being on offer from Netgalley for review to read it again. It had been many years, and I didn't remember much about it, so it was effectively a first-time read.

One of the things I wanted to see was how good a job they'd done on the ebook conversion, and I'm happy to report that it was an excellent one. Often, ebook editions of pre-ebook-era paperbacks suffer from a great many errors in optical character recognition, and publishing houses don't always put in the considerable work necessary to correct them (looking at you, Open Road, and your pathetic job with Andre Norton's Sargasso of Space). This edition is very clean indeed. I spotted one missing quotation mark, and three occasions when the capital "I" in the exclamation "Ia!" had been misrendered as a lower-case "l" at the start of a sentence. That was it; apart from that, no typos that I noticed (and I usually notice them).

Before I discuss the book itself, one more thing about this edition. It's illustrated. I personally found the illustrations cartoony, and at odds with the tone of the text. Its humour and absurdity are understated, whereas the cartoonish distortions of the illustrations were much more extreme.

A couple of things caught my attention about the writing of the book itself. It contains the characteristic Zelaznian word "occurred," which, while it isn't in all of his books, is in many of them, used in a particular way (something strange manifesting itself with no obvious agency). I always look for it in a Zelazny, and am oddly pleased when I find it. It also contains a few Americanisms, despite its British setting, such as "siding" for the outside of a house, and "off of," but since the nationality of the narrator is not established, this wasn't much of a problem.

There were a few passages of alternating dialog, mostly between the dog and the cat, which I found hard to follow because they lacked enough dialog tags to identify who was speaking. I had to go back and count, and that's always disruptive to my immersion in the story.

The story, told in a kind of diary (though it's never explained how the narrator, a dog, keeps a diary), chronicles the 31 days of October, building up to a ritual at the full moon, which will either cause the Lovecraftian Elder Gods to manifest on Earth or prevent them from doing so. Which one it is depends on the manoeuvrings of the "players," who form two factions, the Openers and the Closers. It's initially not clear who belongs to which faction; the dog, Snuff, and his master Jack (by implication, Jack the Ripper), are Closers, trying to prevent the manifestation of the gods. There's a druid; the Count (Dracula, though the name is never used); Larry Talbot, the American werewolf in London; Crazy Jill the witch; a mad Eastern European monk; the vicar; the Great Detective (Sherlock Holmes, again never named but clear enough); the Good Doctor (also not named, but obviously Frankenstein); a pair named Morris and MacCab, who I couldn't place as a reference, but who seem to be graverobbers similar to Burke and Hare; and a number of animals, who can talk to one another, but can only talk to the humans at certain times. Snuff builds alliances and shares information, and even though there are ultimately two factions, there's a division that cuts across and beyond the factions, between what I might call sympathetic and unsympathetic characters. Because my sympathies were engaged both for and against people (and animals) on both sides, the narrative exerted a firm grasp and made sure I wanted to know how it all worked out. While Zelazny's characters are seldom deeply complex, they're always distinctive, and despite the large cast it was easy to remember who was who and what their previous moves had been.

This is a skilfully written work, produced late in Zelazny's too-short life, which uses allusion to commonly understood horror tropes and characters to create a rich situation without spelling everything out. That's a tactic that can easily backfire, if the author just introduces the trope and moves on without doing anything with it, but Zelazny builds on his tropes and gives them new twists that make them more interesting. He maintains a constant tension between a matter-of-fact tone with a note of irony; usually indirect or allusive reference to horror; and sympathetic characters doing their best in a bizarre situation, and balances the three with great ability. He then brings it to an unexpected, clever, and satisfying conclusion.

When I came to write this review, I found that I'd marked the book as read, with a three-star rating. No doubt that was my memory of reading it some years before, and a reflection of my general dislike for the horror genre. Re-reading it gave me a greater appreciation for what Zelazny has managed to pull off here, and I enjoyed it considerably.

View all my reviews

Monday, 19 September 2016

Review: Honor's Flight

Honor's Flight Honor's Flight by Lindsay Buroker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I always enjoy a Lindsay Buroker, and this is no exception. Swift, exciting action; under-resourced but still resourceful heroes; no-nonsense, competent female characters who are, nevertheless, not without a touch of emotional vulnerability; a mismatched, bickering, but ultimately united ensemble cast; a gruff military man with a troubled past - the classic Buroker elements are all here, combined pleasingly.

I did have to suspend a bit of disbelief at how far the protagonist was willing to go in order to defend her former enemy against her own side, but somehow it seemed reasonable.

Highly entertaining and well done, as usual.

View all my reviews