Sunday, 17 February 2019

Review: Company of Strangers

Company of Strangers Company of Strangers by Melissa McShane
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I started out thinking of Melissa McShane as "the other Lindsay Buroker," but I've concluded that she writes more varied - yet always good-quality - books, and has slightly better editing. (Buroker's isn't bad, but McShane's is almost impeccable.)

This seems to be the start of a new series, which I will happily follow. It's more D&D-like than her other books, but happily it is not too close to the game; there's no reference to experience, hit points, or leveling up, for example, though people do improve in their abilities (and the kind of spells they can handle) over time.

I thought the way cleric magic works was a nice original touch: the cleric prays for blessings, and they come in the form of symbols burnt onto pre-prepared rice paper squares, which can be used to invoke them as needed.

Here we have a newly trained (female) wizard venturing out on her first adventure with a party, into the wilderness, on a quest to bring back valuable artifacts from an old ruin. They even meet in a series of inns, though by arrangement, not coincidence. As I said, though, it's not all D&D cliche, by any means; it's an enjoyable adventure story with a fresh approach to magic.

If it has a weakness, it's that the wizard-hating person comes to like this specific wizard a bit too easily, and everyone (except the villains, of course) is a bit too nice. I noticed this with the author's urban fantasy series set in the bookstore, as well; everyone seemed nice, friendly, and reasonable, which in some ways is a pleasant contrast to (and, in my experience, more realistic than) the kind of nasty, broken cast you get in so many books these days, but it can tend to suck a bit of tension and conflict out of the story unless carefully handled.

There was plenty of conflict to go round, though, and not everything was rainbows (even if some of it was unicorns). I look forward to the sequel.

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Review: The Lady in the Coppergate Tower

The Lady in the Coppergate Tower The Lady in the Coppergate Tower by Nancy Campbell Allen
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a book in which the romance is (for my taste) done well, the adventure aspects done OK, and the mystery and setting done badly.

First, the best part. This is a "clean" romance; nothing steamier than a kiss, and yet the kisses manage to be more powerful than some romance writers' descriptions of sex. The man is a decent fellow; he may be intelligent, wealthy, and from a prominent family, but he's also kind (genuinely kind, not just we're-told-he's-kind-but-shown-he's-selfish), has respect for his love interest, and is devoted to her interests without being a lapdog. He's also vulnerable without being weak. She, in turn, is intelligent (actually intelligent, not just we're-told-she's-intelligent-but-she-makes-a-series-of-stupid-decisions), determined, capable, and strong without being harsh or cold. Their love story is a partnership, and, at the climax, she rescues him rather than vice versa (many, many points for that). I have no complaints at all about the romance; I wish there were more like this. If it only had the romance part, it would be excellent.

There's nothing exceptional about the adventure aspects. There are some echoes of Dracula and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, though lacking the tension of the first or the social consciousness of the second. The action is almost all at the end, though there's a promise of it at the beginning - which also tells us that vampires exist, strengthening the Dracula comparisons and making us wonder if the mysterious Romanian count is one. If the story only had the adventure part, it would be average.

Now, the steampunk. Steampunk authors constantly disappoint me because they don't do their research and show me an authentic Victorian period, and they don't do their imaginative work and show me a properly thought through speculative version of the Victorian period either. This book has both faults. The author appears to have no idea whatsoever how noble titles work (something that half an hour with Wikipedia could remedy), and the relations between men and women are not remotely period-authentic. A servant, much less a mechanical servant, especially one belonging to the man in the relationship, would not constitute an adequate chaperone, and a man going into a young woman's bedroom, even with the intent to just talk with her as a valued colleague, would be a much bigger deal than we see here. There are a range of ways that one can approach gender roles in steampunk, and this author has chosen the popular "largely ignore the problem and pretend they're moderns" option.

To the problems of imagination. This is what I think of as "high" steampunk. Not only is there a massive submersible, but there are mechanical servants that are widespread enough, and affordable enough, that a widowed seamstress can own one. They're also sophisticated enough that an advanced model can improbably act like Google and, by looking at a drawing (made from memory) of a cabinet of curiosities, figure out not only where all the items came from and what magic they're likely to have, but also, and very unconvincingly, what exact magic must have been used to retrieve them. This provides information towards resolving the mystery without any actual detective work on the part of the main characters. They don't appear to be governed by Asimov's laws - they can harm humans, and don't seem to have to obey them strictly. And yet these widespread, affordable, sophisticated, largely untrammelled artificial people have not apparently caused widespread technological unemployment leading to Luddite resentment; have not revolted against their servant status; and, in general, haven't had any social impact whatsoever.

To me, the biggest opportunity that steampunk offers is to examine the impact of technology on a society quite different from ours - a society which, like ours, is in the throes of social change already. This is an opportunity that steampunk keeps missing, instead opting to use the technology as mere ornamentation. Case in point: in this book, the rebuilt ancient tower in which the heroine's sister is confined has been made to rotate slowly with a massive and complex set of machinery, for no real reason that I could make out - presumably just because it was cool. That's one of the two things that technology is doing here, and the other is providing easy outs for tedious things like travelling without encountering other people, finding out backstory without doing real research, and having servants that can be disabled at key moments without being killed.

So, romance strong; adventure just OK; speculative and historical elements extremely weak. I almost gave it four stars for the romance aspects, but really they're not so amazing as to make up for the weaknesses as far as I'm concerned.

I received an unedited pre-publication copy via Netgalley for review. Accordingly, I won't talk about the copy editing.

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Tuesday, 5 February 2019

Review: The Unicorn Anthology

The Unicorn Anthology The Unicorn Anthology by Peter S. Beagle
My rating: 0 of 5 stars

Peter S. Beagle tends to be thought of - as he tells us in his introduction - as "the unicorn guy", because of his best-known book. That's not how I think of him, though. I think of him as a lit-fic author who uses fantasy tropes, but whose books tend to be dark and tragic, with imperfect people messing up their lives by their bad decisions and turning a potentially wonderful world infused with magic into something sordid and unpleasant.

And that is pretty much what this anthology gives us, which is why I couldn't finish it. All of the stories, as far as I read, are well written (though, as usual, Caitlin R. Kiernan needs more copy editing), but they pretty much without exception take the unicorn, symbol of purity and innocence, and show it being corrupted in some dark, nasty way.

DNF not for quality, but for taste. It's as if a gourmet chef has, with great skill, prepared a unicorn's liver for me. I can admire the technique in the abstract, but I don't want to eat it.

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Monday, 21 January 2019

Review: Poseidon's Academy

Poseidon's Academy Poseidon's Academy by Sarah A Vogler
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Effectively a YA supers story with a skin of Greek myth. The Greek gods were killed in a war with their human slaves centuries ago, and their powers distributed themselves across the human population, so you can be, for example, a Demeter and have the power to grow plants, or a Heracles and be really strong.

The good: It's a fresh premise for a supers novel, and gives the opportunity to drop plenty of Greek mythic stuff, including all kinds of marvellous monsters. There's strong sensawunda in the underwater school filled with beauty and magic.

The bad: there are inevitable Harry Potter echoes whenever you have a magical school, but there are a few too many of them here: acceptance letter, magical plates that fill with whatever food you want in the dining hall, dorm rooms off a common room, staff with names like Madam Mendem (who is the school healer) and Guinevere Grayson. There's also a Sky High moment near the beginning, when the main character's best friend joins her on the roof by having a tree grow and deposit her there. I haven't read Percy Jackson, so I don't know if the parallels there are also too frequent and obvious; it wouldn't surprise me.

There are two Convenient Eavesdrops that are essential to the plot. Two! Now, I realize that in YA, it's difficult to get the kids knowledge of the aduts' plots without a plot device like this, but I still always roll my eyes and think of Five Go Mad in Dorset every time a plucky kid happens to be somewhere and overhear "Rhubarb, rhubarb, secret plans..." And when it happens twice, it's even worse.

Coincidence and poor decision-making pretty much drive the plot, in fact. Even though at the end we're led to believe that key parts of it were orchestrated by the plotters, an important plot token is picked up through a series of events which the plotters couldn't really have influenced. There's not a lot of protagonism from the characters much of the time, and they get off too lightly when they break the rules and endanger their own and each other's lives. There are rather too many in the core cast, and I found myself struggling to remember who had which powers.

There's a very early flashback, introduced by "Her mind flashed back to...". If you're flashing back that early, you're starting in the wrong place.

In the pre-release version I read from Netgalley, there were also a number of awkwardly or incorrectly phrased sentences, which hopefully will be fixed up before publication. A few of them gave hilarious mental images because the literal meaning of the words just hadn't been thought through.

One of the tests I apply to books that have some good and some not-so-good elements is: would I read a sequel? In this case, I think the answer is "no". While there are some well-staged moments and some bravery and determination from the characters, and it's a decently fresh premise, overall the plot is too expected and too reliant on coincidence, and the characters don't develop much depth or individuality. Combined with mediocre sentence-level writing, this adds up to a score of three stars.

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Review: The Philosopher's War

The Philosopher's War The Philosopher's War by Tom Miller
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

War is always stupid and tragic, but I've always thought of World War I as particularly stupid and tragic, possibly because both of my grandmothers lost brothers in it. I wouldn't normally read a book set in WWI, as a result, but I enjoyed the first book in this series so much that I couldn't pass it by. (It was the best book I read in 2017.)

This one didn't disappoint. Here we have Robert Weekes again, 19 years old, sole male flyer in the Rescue and Evacuation Corps (in a world where women have more powerful magic, and drawing sigils in corn powder mixed with sand enables people to fly). He has to contend not only with the hazing and prejudice he suffers as an anomalous interloper, but also with the horrors of war, and with a plan to involve him in a mutiny to prevent the war being won through biological warfare that will kill millions. He has to constantly choose between his lover and his comrades, his duty and his conscience. It comes close to tearing him apart before the end.

I will say, it's a very American view of WWI; the Americans win the war, and the British and Commonwealth (and French) troops go mostly or entirely unmentioned.

One thing I did appreciate, however, was that the morally correct but legally dubious actions of the central characters gain them official displeasure, censure, and punishment (though not as much as early hints led me to expect), and that it's based in large part on powerful men's dislike of the existence of powerful women. The religious extremists who were such a key part of the first book are only briefly referred to in this one, but there's always the awareness that if they handle matters badly, the conspirators will not only draw down dire consequences on themselves, but on others like them.

A coming of age in a terrible set of circumstances, with strong and varied action sequences that mean something emotionally rather than just being there for decoration, and constant inner conflict to match the outer conflict that fuels and drives it. It's wonderfully written, too, and I look forward eagerly to the next in the series.

I received a pre-publication copy from Netgalley for review.

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Review: Tess of the Road

Tess of the Road Tess of the Road by Rachel Hartman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoyed the two Seraphina books tremendously, so when I saw this, set in the same world and starring Seraphina's younger half-sister, I eagerly picked it up.

It's very much a road-trip story, almost a picaresque (the episodic adventures of a rogue), though Tess isn't really as much of a rogue as she thinks she is. The drawback of this is that, because the journey is explicitly more important than the destination, the plot can seem a bit meandering and unanchored. And it's not a short book.

That's largely made up for by the strong interiority of the main character. Tess is initially unappealing; she'll cut off her nose to spite her face, she's irresponsible, resentful, and rebellious seemingly for rebellion's sake. However, she's also living with the consequences of some bad decisions, and making just enough effort to do better that I was prepared to give her a chance.

I'm glad I did. Her inner journey is mostly more interesting than her outer journey, and much more the point of the story, and the author handles it expertly. The slow unrolling of her tragic backstory serves to keep up the suspense, and culminates in a shocking moment of revelation.

Tess has to pretend to be a man in order to be safe on the road and to be taken seriously, and there is plenty of exploration of male-female dynamics. It's not preachy or one-dimensional, though; there are several good men in the story. A sidelight is provided by Tess's childhood friend, the reptilian quigutl, who was female when they first met but is now male. The quigutls' alien viewpoint provides an interesting counterpoint to Tess's exploration of her own culture's unexamined beliefs.

I listened to this as an audiobook, so I can't comment much on the copy editing, except to say that a crevasse is not a crevice, and a baronet is not a baron, or anything like one. Apart from these glitches, I had no issue with the prose or the worldbuilding.

This is marked as the first in a new series, and I will definitely read a sequel when it arrives.

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Review: Pendulum Heroes

Pendulum Heroes Pendulum Heroes by James Beamon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I don't generally read LitRPG, which this arguably is (it's the old "D&D players drawn into the world of the game" premise, which goes back almost as far as the game itself). I decided to give this one a shot, though, because the blurb intrigued me - particularly the teenage boy stuck as a warrior princess in a chainmail bikini - and I recognised the author's name from a writers' forum we both belong to. (I don't think we've ever directly interacted there, and I don't believe this connection influenced my rating.)

It's capably done, not just your standard campaign transcript or thud-and-blunder pulp, but with enough extra depth to make it more interesting and thought-provoking. In particular, it highlights the shallowness of teen boys who delight in death and destruction without empathy, or are thoughtless in their attitudes to women. It's not preachy, though; it shows rather than tells.

The plot is standard enough, a travelling quest in which the party faces multiple and varied challenges, but it's kept moving well and enjoyably executed. The characters are distinct, and have a bit of depth to them, particularly Rich, Melvin, and Melvin's older veteran brother Mike. There's a lightly sketched romantic triangle to provide extra tension.

I enjoyed it, and I would read a sequel.

I received a pre-release copy from Netgalley for review.

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