Sunday, 30 December 2012

Review: Cold Days

Cold Days
Cold Days by Jim Butcher

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I'd heard nothing but good things about this latest Jim Butcher, and it didn't disappoint. It's classic Dresden Files. Harry begins battered, without resources and in trouble, and finishes up battered, having reconnected with his major allies, been through major danger and hard fights against impossible odds, and in trouble, even if not currently active trouble. Bad things happen, aspects of previous books resurface, and we get a glimpse into a world of even larger problems to be dealt with in the future.

It comes out punching and just keeps on going. A worthy entry in the series.

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Saturday, 29 December 2012

Review: Captain Vorpatril's Alliance

Captain Vorpatril's Alliance
Captain Vorpatril's Alliance by Lois McMaster Bujold

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

While this isn't a top-class LMB book, an average book for her is better than most people can write on their best day.

She sets herself some challenges upfront. Unlike most other books in the Vorkosigan series, this one isn't told from Miles' point of view, which instantly drops the frenetic, mad pace that only Miles can bring. He does get a brief cameo, and looms over the action in his absence. It's not the book with which to start reading the series, by the way, since it's full of unexplained references back to the events of the other books, some of which I missed myself because it has been a while since I read them all through.

It's told from Ivan's third-person limited POV (and that of a new character), and Ivan, while not actually an idiot, is dedicated to the principle that if you keep your head down and wait things out and insist that the mad events are not your fault, things will go much better. He's also resolutely unambitious, since he has a tenuous claim to be Emperor which he has never remotely wanted to assert. All this makes him an unpromising protagonist.

Because LMB is such a good (and well-practiced) writer, she manages to make him a protagonist anyway, by giving him something he cares enough about to fight for. He shows competence, courage and even, by Ivan standards, cunning. And, of course, in her trademark style, the author throws at the characters exactly what they least want to happen, which ramps up the stakes and the tension and drives them to show their essential qualities.

The other viewpoint character (the two switch more-or-less scene by scene) is a Jacksonian Baronette, the daughter of a House Major. She calls Ivan by his first and middle names, Ivan Xav, and I think this is mainly so that we can tell whose point of view we're following at the time. Their voices are not otherwise particularly distinct, so a device like that is needed. She's apparently led a very sheltered life, considering that her parents are basically a cross between gang kingpins, bandit chieftains and warlords; at one point she refers to one of her father's old mercenary mates, apparently unironically, as "a very bad man". She comes across as rather naive for a 25-year-old, in fact, and that didn't completely work for me. In fact, she has a weakness shared by many romance heroines (this isn't solely a romance, but there's a very strong romance plot): it's hard to see in her the positive qualities which are captivating the hero so much. I would have liked to see her with some skill or character strength that makes a clear difference to the resolution of the other parts of the plot, makes her stand out to Ivan from his other girlfriends, and clearly explains the different relationship that he develops with her.

My overall verdict: good, but not great.

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Thursday, 27 December 2012

Review: A Hidden Fire

A Hidden Fire
A Hidden Fire by Elizabeth Hunter

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I picked this up, not really knowing what it was, because I noticed that the sequels were doing well on Amazon's indie page. It turned out to be a paranormal romance, which isn't my usual genre. (I read urban fantasy, which is not quite the same thing.)

It was a distinctly better-than-average one, though, mainly because of the main characters. The female lead actually was a strong, intelligent, independent and likable young woman. We weren't just told that she was, we were shown that she was. The male lead, likewise, was believable as someone who would attract such a woman. And the relationship between them was one of mutual respect, enforced by her strong sense of boundaries:

"See this? It's soup. Soup is food. See me? I'm me, and I'm not food. Any questions?"

This is not your usual dysfunctional paranormal romance heroine.

Although it's indie published, you wouldn't know it from the editing, which is up to the standard of a Big Six New York publisher (other than HarperCollins, who sometimes publish very poorly edited books). I suspect, though, that the editor didn't have to work too hard to achieve this, because the author has an English literature degree and the writing itself is fluent and capable.

There were a few moments that were unclear. The author sometimes doesn't tag the dialog enough, so it's hard to work out who's speaking, and I never was quite sure whether the main characters got physical or not towards the end, though it seemed like not. One character is described as "the older man" even after we know that's not true. But these are minor flaws in an otherwise well-written book.

As I say, it's not really my favourite genre, and I'm therefore not rushing to get the next one, but if it's your favourite genre I strongly recommend it.

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Saturday, 22 December 2012

Review: Pilgrim of the Sky

Pilgrim of the Sky
Pilgrim of the Sky by Natania Barron

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a book by a woman, about a woman, and apparently for women.

Now, as a man, I read a lot of books by women. If you check my reviews, you'll see approximately half are for books by women. That's not because I consciously choose to read equal numbers by men and women, but just a thing that happens naturally. I'm happy to read books that are usually considered "for women", too. And I love a good, strong, active, feisty, intelligent female protagonist.

So I ascribe the fact that this book didn't do much for me to the fact that, at least as far as I read, which was about the first 30%, the main character of this book is not like that. She's passive, a little whiny, to her credit not outstandingly stupid, but not especially intelligent either, and didn't have a single positive trait that I found likable.

She also has one - though only one - mark of being a Mary Sue: everyone wants to sleep with her. And a mark of a Mary Sue with issues: she lets them. Out of eight other named characters (depending how you count) at the 30% mark, four had had a sexual relationship with her, and it was looking inevitable that a fifth was going to.

I say "depending how you count", because the element of the fantastic in the book is that there are alternate worlds, in which some people have "twains", versions of themselves. I thought at first that these were the same person in an alternate timeline, but the worlds are more different than that, and so are the people. They sometimes, but not always, have the same or a similar name, and they usually look alike and are about the same age, but at the point where I stopped the main character had just met a twain of herself who was a different ethnicity, a different age, and shared only the initial letter of her name. It was starting to sound like reincarnation, only across alternate worlds instead of time.

Which would be a good premise, if it was explored with a character I liked.

There was also some goddess-mysticism being signalled. Again, I don't mind the odd bit of goddess-mysticism, but it needs to be reasonably convincing, and I wasn't convinced by the Marian Church. Perhaps it's addressed later in the book, but I didn't buy that the worship of Mary would have somehow displaced the worship of Christ when Mary's claim to prominence was exactly because she was the mother of Christ.

I just used the word "somehow". One thing I noticed in the writing was that it's occasionally vague, using phrases like "she didn't know if it was because of A or B or for some other reason". It gives the impression of a main character lacking in self-insight. If she achieves self-insight later in the book, it's too late for me; my interest was already lost.

The book is edited well, but not perfectly. Like so many writers, the author has a slightly smaller vocabulary than she thinks she does, and makes mistakes like writing "maligned" when she means "harmed" or "temerity" when she means "timorousness" (those two words are opposites, by the way), or using the nonexistent word "allayment" when she means "alleviation". There's the odd awkward phrase, too, like "a few too many times than would be considered acceptable". In general, though, it read smoothly and well.

Rather than slog through a not-especially-exciting book with a character I disliked more and more, though, I stopped reading. It may improve later on. But I wasn't going to continue just on the off-chance.

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Sunday, 16 December 2012

Review: Legion

Legion by Brandon Sanderson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I always enjoy Brandon Sanderson's stories, because he's so inventive. Who else would come up with this scenario? Rather than having multiple personalities which he switches between, the main character of Legion hallucinates multiple personalities as external people with their own psychological issues - and their own areas of extreme competence, which makes him desirable as a consultant by people who have unusual problems. He knows he's hallucinating, too, and claims to be sane.

The particular unusual problem is also an interesting one. A devout scientist has invented a way of taking photographs through time. He's stolen the prototype from the company that's funded it and flown to Jerusalem. The other scientists, of course, assume that photographs he takes of, for example, the tomb of Jesus will inevitably disprove faith, but is that in fact inevitable?

I'd love to read more about this unusual superhero. Not only his primary personality, but his secondary ones are engaging and fun to read about, and Sanderson is a good enough writer that even a man who is good at basically everything doesn't become simply a Gary Stu who never faces significant obstacles.

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Review: The Box

The Box
The Box by Ben Guilfoy

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I stopped reading The Box two-thirds of the way through. It wasn't engaging me enough, and I had other things to read that I thought I would enjoy more. I wasn't quite sure why it didn't engage me until I read a post on the author's blog.

In that post, Guilfoy talks about modeling his stories on TV episodes, and that is exactly what The Box is. It reads like a straight description of an episode in a (fairly average) TV show.

The problem with that is that when I sit down to read, I'm looking for more than I will get from a TV show. I don't just want to know the characters' actions and reactions to what they see and hear. I want to know what's going on inside the head of at least one of them. What are their pasts, their hopes and dreams and desires, their thoughts and feelings? What do the events mean to them? I want to see them change and grow and develop as characters, too. I haven't gone back and checked thoroughly, but my memory is that we get little, if any, of that in The Box. It's all action and dialogue.

I'm also looking for writing that is more than simply functional, that is flowing and competent, that has commas in all the right places and chooses exactly the right word. I didn't get that either.

It's not terrible. I've read much worse. But for me, it was lacking in a lot of what I look for when I read a story.

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Review: Reggiecide

Reggiecide by Chris Dolley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Before I buy a Kindle book, I usually read the whole sample. Then, if I'm in any doubt, I go to the Kindle Store, remind myself of the price, and maybe read some reviews. I very rarely use the "Buy this book now" option before I've finished the sample.

For this book, I made an exception, because of this sentence:

"Reeves had done it again! The man must bathe in fish oil. His brain was positively turbot-charged."

If you're the right audience for this book, I don't have to explain that.

As with the previous book, Dolley's Wodehouse voice is almost (but not quite) pitch-perfect. His problem is that his model, Bertie Wooster, never does anything remotely important in the greater scheme of things, whereas his character Reggie Worcester is exactly the same kind of idiot but is trying to prevent a reanimated Guy Fawkes from blowing up Parliament. Inevitably, there must be scenes for which he has no model, and they sound very slightly off.

Both as Wodehouse pastiche and as steampunk adventure, it still works. The ending perhaps worked less well than the beginning. Again, Reggie is an idiot and Reeves is a genius, and there's the inevitable temptation to have Reeves do all the work of resolving the situation, partly offstage - a temptation to which Dolley yields. The problem with that is that Reggie is the viewpoint character, so he needs to be the protagonist, not just an observer of Reeves, if the story is to be fully satisfying.

Like most short books, this one could also stand to be longer. I enjoyed it, though, and I'm looking forward to more.

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Thursday, 13 December 2012

Review: Take Back Tomorrow

Take Back Tomorrow
Take Back Tomorrow by Richard Levesque

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It's a pleasure to read an indie-published book that is not only well-edited, but also well and intricately plotted.

Time-travel books inevitably get complex, and I enjoyed the author's skill in bringing the whole story together and tucking up all the loose ends. No Chekhov's gun remained unfired.

I liked the protagonists, too. Eddie is a decent guy, and we could do with more of them. Roxanne is a genuinely strong woman, who doesn't feel the need to shout about it or to reject Eddie's help because of it. The supporting characters were well-drawn and distinctive.

I did feel that Eddie and Roxanne's relationship progressed implausibly fast, but the plot more or less required that. I also found the initial setup - that Eddie didn't want his editor to find out that he was plagiarizing Shakespeare - a little weak. I was never convinced that the editor would care that much as long as the stories were selling, it was hardly illegal, and (as Eddie himself pointed out) it's not as if Shakespeare didn't take other people's stories himself. Perhaps the author, as a teaching academic, has stronger-than-average feelings about plagiarism.

The other disappointment to me was the final chapter. I felt that there was a lot of telling rather than showing so that the book could be wrapped up in a bit of a rush. Even in the second-to-last chapter I still felt like there were too many remaining plot threads for the book to be complete without a sequel. Surely, I thought, he can't wrap all that up in one chapter. Well, he could, but only by fast-forwarding.

It's a pity the end wasn't more satisfying (which it could easily have been if it had been stretched out just a little - even another chapter might have done it, and two certainly would have). The rest of the book I thoroughly enjoyed.

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Saturday, 8 December 2012

Review: How Not to Write a Novel: 200 Classic Mistakes and How to Avoid Them--A Misstep-by-Misstep Guide

How Not to Write a Novel: 200 Classic Mistakes and How to Avoid Them--A Misstep-by-Misstep Guide
How Not to Write a Novel: 200 Classic Mistakes and How to Avoid Them--A Misstep-by-Misstep Guide by Howard Mittelmark

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Considering how bad some of the books are that HarperCollins publishes, publishing this one is an act of bare-faced chutzpah. I'm not saying, though, that it isn't a good idea.

Although the book isn't consistent in whether it is giving good advice (how to avoid writing an unpublishable novel) or tongue-in-cheek bad advice (how to write a novel that nobody will publish), if you keep your wits about you the advice is well worthwhile. Of course, if your wits are about you to that degree, you probably don't need this book. It then becomes more an extended in-joke shared with other superior intellects about those idiots who write all the bad books. (There's a Chekhov's Gun joke early on in which the phrase Chekhov's Gun, and in fact the name Chekhov, is never mentioned. You have to have studied writing theory, and be at least passingly familiar with Russian literature, to get it.)

The book is full of jokes, actually, and at its best is probably almost as witty as the authors think it is. Many of them are pseudoexamples, made-up bits of bad manuscript that demonstrate the point being made. I think my favourite is this one: '“Call my patent attorney!” cried Thomas Edison. “I have invented the telephone!”'

The advice itself is direct, vivid and also amusing. "Giving a reader a sex scene that is only half right is like giving her half of a kitten. It is not half as cute as a whole kitten; it is a bloody, godawful mess."

I got it on sale for $1.99, and at that price it's a bargain. If you're a beginning writer, it's packed with warning signs against hundreds of mistakes that beginning writers make, and if you're not, it's entertaining. It goes on perhaps a touch too long, has a smug journalistic air of being too clever by half and certainly cleverer than you, and makes a few too many in-jokes, but I think it achieves what it sets out to achieve.

One thing, though: I read the ebook version, and the formatting is a bit of a mess at the end. Attempting to page forward to the second page of "About the Author" kept taking me first to the "You've finished this book" page and then back to the first page of "About the Author" again. I managed to get past that, and hit the footnotes from several chapters back, of which I'd of course forgotten the context.

If you read only one book about writing, you're probably not reading enough books about writing. But I suggest that it's worth making this one of the ones that you read.

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Review: Pay Me, Bug!

Pay Me, Bug!
Pay Me, Bug! by Christopher Wright

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I enjoyed this enough that I considered giving it four stars, but there were enough issues that I rounded down to three.

The good, first of all. This is a heist novel. I love heists, rogues and capers, and this was an amusing one, with action, banter, daring, unlikely plans and protagonist haplessness. The dialogue was fun, and the relationships between the characters were varied and convincing. It's also a space opera in the classic mold, and although the genre is starting to show its age I still enjoy it on its own terms.

Now, the issues. There's a list.

I'm currently reading [b:How Not to Write a Novel: 200 Classic Mistakes and How to Avoid Them--A Misstep-by-Misstep Guide|2360064|How Not to Write a Novel 200 Classic Mistakes and How to Avoid Them--A Misstep-by-Misstep Guide|Howard Mittelmark||2366831], and one of their pieces of pithy advice is "If there is a plan, events should not go according to it." The reason is that you lose tension when the protagonists succeed all the time. This is probably the biggest, certainly the most widespread, of the issues I spotted in Pay Me, Bug. The author writes himself into a bit of a corner with it, in fact, because there's a schtick where everyone in the crew dreads the captain's Plan Bs. They're terrible, everyone says. So, for most of the book, Plan A succeeds, and therefore there's not much tension. When a Plan A finally did go wrong, I'd been conditioned to expect that it would work out OK anyway, and so there still wasn't as much tension as there could have been - and the Plan B worked perfectly fine, and had obviously been at least partly prepared in advance, even though it was described as "improvising".

There's a similar inconsistency with the captain's ability to shoot. At one point, he's escaping with some other characters and his fire is incredibly inaccurate. It's at Star Wars Stormtrooper levels of inaccuracy. Yet in another fight later, he shoots very competently and successfully. It's as if the author was setting up a flaw in the character's abilities to keep him from being a total Gary Stu, and then had to drop it later for plot reasons.

Now, the jarring moment. The significance of the title is that an alien crew member, referred to as Ktk or "bug", keeps betting against the captain with one of his colleagues, and losing. It's a kind of superstitious thing with him, like taking out insurance. (There's a nice bit of writing skill, by the way, with Ktk's dialog. Because he's kind of a Chewbacca character, who can't physically speak English but can understand it, and the rest of the crew understand his language without being able to speak it, all of his dialog is in free indirect speech rather than inside quotation marks. I enjoyed that.) At one point, Ktk manipulates events to produce a win for himself which seriously endangers the captain and delays their rather time-critical mission, indirectly leading to considerable problems, but the captain is completely unbothered, giving as his reason that he was also betting against himself. I found this jarring and unlikely.

Something else I found, not jarring exactly, but annoying. The bad guys, the Radiant Throne, are uptight Christian hypocrites. Now, I realize that in the USA at the moment, at least in certain circles, this is a shorthand way of characterizing bad guys, like having the villain kick a puppy. I'll even admit that there's some justification for the stereotype. But it is a stereotype, and as someone who's indirectly slurred by association, I find it mildly offensive. The fact that they're Christians has no other significance to the story, it's purely a quick way to cast them as unimaginative and humourless villains, and it reminds me of 1930s pulps, where making someone Jewish or dark-skinned achieved something similar. It struck me as a cheap shot. I may be misreading it completely, but that's how it seemed.

Finally, I'll mention the editing. The sentence-level writing is above the standard of most indie novels. It's vivid, fresh and vigorous. But the author doesn't know exactly when to use a comma, writes "discrete" when he means "discreet", and has a few other similar issues scattered through the text. As indie books go, it's in the top 20%, maybe 15%, but that actually isn't a very high bar, sadly.

In summary, I enjoyed it, but could have enjoyed it so much more if there'd been more tension, more consistency, less facile villainizing, and better editing. As it is, it's a toss-up whether I'll bother reading a sequel.

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Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Review: A Conspiracy of Alchemists

A Conspiracy of Alchemists
A Conspiracy of Alchemists by Liesel Schwarz

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I got this book through Netgalley, meaning I read it prior to publication (it's basically an E-ARC). I therefore have to qualify my complaints about the editing, since it hasn't yet had its final edit. I really hope the editor is a good one, though, who can pick up all of the odd partly-revised sentences, the double punctuation (comma and exclamation point, for example), the places where someone has apparently expanded the contractions (like "you're") and left the apostrophe in place, and occasional errors like "iambics and retours" instead of "alembics and retorts".

I'm fairly sure the number of bullets in the revolver isn't consistent, either, something else a competent editor will pick up.

Setting all that firmly aside, this is a difficult book to categorize. As the blurb says, there are elements of steampunk, urban fantasy and paranormal romance, and they didn't always work well together for me.

In particular, I found the romance elements cliched. When the romance plot started, I was put in mind of the short-lived Red Flag Act, which in the early years of automobiles required a man with a red flag to precede any such vehicle waving a red flag and periodically setting off fireworks. Which is to say, the romance was telegraphed pretty heavily.

I could have done with it being de-emphasized. The book is a decent pulp adventure with solid steampunk/urban fantasy foundations. It doesn't need a not-especially-well-done romance to be one of the main plotlines.

There was the classic moment where the man is trying to tell the woman something important to the plot, and the woman gets offended (for, as far as I could tell, plot reasons, because the conversation itself didn't seem to justify it adequately) and refuses to hear any more, and you just know that that's going to lead to trouble later. But it didn't. Not much later on he was able to give her the rest of the information before it became important. I'm not sure whether to applaud this as an averted trope or shake my head over the wasted setup.

There were a couple more jarring moments. For example, at one point it's suddenly revealed that Marsh speaks little or no Turkish. I had been assuming all along that he spoke fluent Turkish (given his age and his friendship with a previous Caliph), and that his conversations had been conducted in that language. That seemed more likely than that everyone he met in Constantinople, including a young boy, spoke fluent English.

On the upside, even if the big scene near the end was the classic robed-figures-chanting-around-a-virgin-chained-to-the-stone-altar setup, and even if it did go all Indiana Jones (I sometimes describe steampunk as "Indiana Jones in a bad Jules Verne costume"), at least the female character did something competent herself rather than waiting passively to be rescued. I am so sick of "plucky gels" who, when the chips are down, turn into Penelope Pitstop.

I enjoyed the Professor's dialogue, and wished that we'd seen him earlier (I certainly hope that if there is a sequel, as the ending signals, he gets more screen time). The climax, though troperific, was suspenseful and kept me reading. And I didn't want to shake the heroine very often at all, which for an urban-fantasy or steampunk heroine is impressive.

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Friday, 9 November 2012

Review: The Communion of the Saint

The Communion of the Saint
The Communion of the Saint by Alan David Justice

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It took me a long time to listen to this on Podiobooks, and I finally finished it when I'd run out of other things to listen to. I think there are two main reasons.

Firstly, it's often emotionally intense, and I'm not in the mood for that very often. I know I'm at one end of a spectrum there, so that's more a fault in me than one in the book. If anything, it's one of the book's strengths.

The other reason, though, is that I found the main character (and first-person narrator) unappealing. I don't call her the protagonist, because most of the time she isn't. She actively resists doing anything. She's an American historian named Clio (after the muse of history) who goes to St Albans in England and, guided by St Alban himself, starts experiencing the lives of people from the past. Now, you'd think that, however emotionally wrenching the actual lives are, a historian would love this opportunity, but no.

I don't usually analyse books using the Hero's Journey, but Clio takes refusing the call to a whole new level, stretching it out almost the full length of the book. Frankly, I got sick of her whining. "Why me? I didn't ask for this!" She said those same words over and over until I felt like shaking her. She treated everyone else badly, even (in fact, especially) when they were good to her. She was refusing the call because she feared that, like her mother, she was becoming psychotic. She wasn't psychotic. She was neurotic, and annoyingly so.

The historical flashbacks are well done, though perhaps too numerous (I think the whole book could benefit from being shorter - it might pick up the languid pace). Emotion is well conveyed, though not to my taste. I felt, though, that the religious aspect of the story was lacking much content. There didn't seem to be any particular message coming through the mysticism.

It's skilfully written, and I think that's what ultimately kept me going to the end. But I didn't like it much.

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Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Review: The Mask And The Master

The Mask And The Master
The Mask And The Master by Ben Rovik

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I listened to the first volume of this series in the Podiobooks version, so I noticed some extra things this time around - namely, of course, the editing.

Now, I've seen much worse editing than this, but then I've seen some extremely bad editing. Here, there are missing spaces, there are missing words, there are partly-revised sentences with doubled-up words. It's refreshingly free of homonym errors, though, unless you count "pistole". (I thought this might be a quaint variant spelling, since the author seems to like unusual names and words, but then I looked it up. A pistole is a coin. The firearm should be spelled "pistol".)

I'm also not convinced the author knows what a dynamo is (it's not a motor - in fact, it's more or less the opposite of a motor), and I'm certain he doesn't know what "strafe" means (it doesn't mean to point your gun without firing it).

Those problems aside, this is very well done indeed. The author does a beautiful job of setting up a perfect misunderstanding between two groups of well-intentioned people who inevitably end up fighting. The tension and action is well-paced and the characters are distinct from each other and relatable. And there's a nice mystery set up at the end to keep us looking for the next volume, which I am looking forward very much to buying.

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Saturday, 3 November 2012

Review: Matchmakers 2.0

Matchmakers 2.0
Matchmakers 2.0 by Debora Geary

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I read this on the "read ALL the Debora Geary books" principle, because I love her Modern Witch series and its spinoffs. This isn't in the same setting and has completely new characters. In fact, it isn't in the same genre; no fantasy here, only romance (and humour). I enjoyed it anyway, if not as much as her main series.

Like most novellas, it would benefit from being filled out a little more, maybe even to novel length, but what there is is good. I found the humour actually funny (always a plus), and the characters rang true, as did the clueless company making bad decisions. There was some nice interplay between he cynicism of the main character and the cheerful optimism of her friend and co-worker, a New Agey type who wasn't vapid and ineffectual, but had her own kind of strength and even wisdom. I liked all the main characters, in fact (Debora Geary's great skill is creating likeable characters, so we care about what happens to them).

The reason for three stars? I was left wanting more. With another couple of complications, it would make a four-star novel.

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Thursday, 1 November 2012

Review: The Wizard That Wasn't

The Wizard That Wasn't
The Wizard That Wasn't by Ben Rovik

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It's always a pleasure to discover a new indie author who knows how to tell a good story.

The Wizard that Wasn't moves along at a good pace. There's always something happening, and the stakes are always high - and always personal for the characters. The characters, in turn, are distinct, their motivations are clear, their conflicts are understandable.

There's humour, but also drama. Sometimes there's humour and drama at the same time, as when the protagonist is shut in a closet running a machine that he hopes will rescue the princess, and has to come up with ever wilder excuses about what he's doing in there so as not to get shut down.

I listened to Ben Rovik's zestful reading on Podiobooks, and as soon as I'd finished I bought the ebooks of both this and the sequel (which I'm currently enjoying).

If you want to see what it looks like when dieselpunk-fantasy is done well, get hold of this one.

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Sunday, 28 October 2012

Review: The Well of Ascension

The Well of Ascension
The Well of Ascension by Brandon Sanderson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I've been watching the videos of Brandon Sanderson's writing course at BYU, and it's interesting to be reading one of his books at the same time (particularly since he draws on his own writing for examples sometimes). Here is a spectacular example of plotting. At the end of each of the six parts, there's a twist or a big reveal. There are constant surprises and turnarounds, which kept me glued to the page. I was always wondering "How on earth is he going to get them out of this one?"

There's lots of action, too, but every fight is different. He never writes the same scene twice.

Mistborn has a couple of things going for it in terms of my personal taste, as well. I love superhero novels, and basically the Mistborn and the Mistings are superheroes, albeit in an epic fantasy setting. I'm not a fan of the same-old-same-old epic fantasy formula, on the other hand, but Sanderson puts wonderful spins on that formula. The result is a fresh story that wouldn't be quite the same if we didn't know the formula he's playing against. The ideas of the Chosen One, the Dark Lord, the wise mentor, even the returning king all get turned inside out and upside down. It's not just play for the sake of play, either. It makes for some deep and moving moments as the characters discover how their expectations were tragically wrong.

One of Sanderson's stated goals is to achieve "Orwellian language", which isn't (as you'd expect) doublespeak, but language that is like a clear window through which you see the story, without noticing the language itself. But, he has a distinctive language quirk that occurs over and over again and which, once I had noticed it, I found very distracting. I won't say what it was to keep from driving someone else crazy with it, but the previous sentence in this review contained an example of it. It's not wrong, exactly, just unconventional.

Other than that, I am thoroughly enjoying the Mistborn series, and will be hunting out other Sanderson books as well.

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Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Review: War for the Oaks

War for the Oaks
War for the Oaks by Emma Bull

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I loved Emma Bull's [b:Territory|70581|Territory|Emma Bull||68392], a weird-west version of the Shootout at the OK Corral that leaves Mike Resnik's [b:The Buntline Special|8253037|The Buntline Special (Weird West Tales, #1)|Mike Resnick||13100750] gasping in its dust (sorry, Mike). And people kept telling me how good War for the Oaks was... but I was still amazed.

Published back in 1987, here is one of the founding books of urban fantasy. It's almost all here: the feisty contemporary woman, smart and independent, having to deal as best she can with the supernatural; a powerful sense of place (the Twin Cities, in this case) and time; the supernatural threat, of course, and saving the city, if not the world, therefrom; even the romance and the sex is here. With a shapeshifter, no less.

There are two differences between War for the Oaks and most urban fantasies being published today, though. One is that it's written in third-person limited rather than first person, which is a trivial stylistic difference when you do third-person limited as well as Bull does. And the other is that Bull can write really, really well.

I don't just mean that she's good at telling a story. Plenty of today's urban fantasists can do that. Bull's protagonist Eddi is a poet (though she denies it), and it's with the voice and eye of a poet, and the intonations and perfect word choice and beautiful phrasing of a poet, that War for the Oaks is told.

And yet it never, for me, crossed that line from "beautifully done" to "done in order to be beautiful". It's not self-indulgent or self-conscious or self-anything. It's such a pleasure to read a book written by someone whose vocabulary is not smaller than she thinks it is, who doesn't use a single incorrect homonym, and who chooses her words so well.

It's also a pleasure to read an urban fantasy in which we're not told, but are shown, that the protagonist is a strong, independent woman. Eddi protagonizes like crazy. She makes things happen with courage, determination and intelligence, and by cultivating alliances like a smart hero. She never once has to be rescued by a man from a boneheadedly stupid but plot-advancing decision, something that happens all too often in urban fantasy (possibly having come in via the "romance" part of paranormal romance). In fact, she rescues a man instead. We also see her romantic choices improving throughout the book, right from the first chapter, where she has decided to dump her decorative but otherwise useless boyfriend.

So much of urban fantasy seems like a poor echo of War for the Oaks now. I only wish Emma Bull had written more like this.

In fact, I wish anyone had.

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Saturday, 20 October 2012

Review: Psion Beta

Psion Beta
Psion Beta by Jacob Gowans

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'll be honest, this was a three-star book until near the end.

See, the problem with writing a book which features people from all over the world is that there are at least two traps you can fall into. One is to make all of them sound more or less the same, and like members of your culture. The other is to have them all be stereotypes.

Sadly, this book falls into both traps. Although the Americas, north and south, are the enemy in this book (an interesting and unusual choice), all the kids sound to me like Americans. They don't use highly obvious US slang, but there's enough that to me, a non-American, it's noticeable. The South African main character's favourite sport? American football. (Nobody seems to play soccer.)

Anyone who isn't named as being from a specific country, like the commander, seems generically American too.

At the same time, the kids are a series of stereotypes. The black kid was in trouble with the law (though at least he's not good at basketball). The Scandinavian girl is an attractive blonde. The Irish boy comes from a poor family with ten kids. (He's the only one who seems to have a hint of his own dialect. He often says "I'll tell you" to emphasize his sentences. Personally I don't remember ever hearing an Irish person say this, but maybe it's regional.) The Chinese guy is very serious. (Again, most of the Chinese people I've known have had hilarious senses of humour, but for some reason the serious Chinese guy is a stereotype.) The other African keeps talking about her tribal elders and braids feathers into her hair.

It's difficult to make people distinctive and of a specific culture without using stereotypes, I'll grant you, and at least the protagonist is non-white. His status as the protagonist may save him from the accusation of being a "magical negro", because he's not only got the same genetic superpower as the other kids, he has an extra one that makes him even better. This, along with the fate of his former friends, is something he oddly shows no curiosity about.

That lack of curiosity is one of two issues I had with suspension of disbelief about human behaviour. The other is part of the backstory. There was a devastating plague, and in response, people... became rational, set aside their differences and formed a world government? Um, probably not. Plagues make people afraid, and frightened people don't cooperate well, not spontaneously at least. Perhaps there's more to the story that will come out later in the series, though.

Most of the way through the book, these problems were what I was mainly noticing. The story itself had been decent enough, though a little formulaic, the usual YA teen-romance-rivalry-angst that we've seen many times before, reasonably well done but not groundbreaking. The editing is mostly good, apart from the occasional sentence where the words have been partially, but not fully rearranged, and I only spotted one homophone mistake ("repelled" instead of "rappelled"). That's much better than average for a self-published novel, so I was thinking "three stars, but I probably won't buy the sequel".

I thought I had the ending all figured out, too, but it turned out I didn't. Yes, I correctly predicted that things would go horribly wrong, and when, and approximately how, but the details and the twists were well enough done that they earned another star. And the outcome was not what I predicted.

I do intend to read the sequel, now, simply because of how the book picks up at the end. I just hope that the level of action and excitement the last few chapters reach is sustained in the next volume.

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Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Review: Stalking The Unicorn

Stalking The Unicorn
Stalking The Unicorn by Mike Resnick

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When I was deciding whether to get this or not, I hesitated because of one or two reviews which suggested that it tends to be whimsical for no good reason. That is, there are whimsical scenes which don't end up having anything to do with the resolution of the story.

I should really have listened. Whimsical for no good reason works all right in a children's book, but this is definitely not one. It's a kind of clash, and I do mean clash, between a noir detective story and... not Alice in Wonderland, because it's not as good, and not Sylvie and Bruno, because nothing is that bad... maybe The Hunting of the Snark? The Phantom Tollbooth, only without the puns? Something along those lines.

If the whimsy was really, really hilarious, like Hitchhiker's Guide, that would be all right too, but it isn't. The completely unnecessary scene, for instance, in which the last surviving Genie of the Market mourns the loss of passion in the New York Stock Exchange now that it's all computerized. It has no significance for the plot, and it isn't funny. It just takes up space.

The characters are all stock, and never rise above that, even the protagonist. His dialogue is good, though, and generally I was amused by it.

Having said all that, if those pointless scenes were cut, and if a more careful editor had gone over the book after it was OCR converted from the print edition, it wouldn't be bad - though it would still be overpriced.

I won't be buying the rest of the series.

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Friday, 12 October 2012

Review: Resonance

Resonance by Chris Dolley

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It's not often that I buy a book thinking it's something completely different from what it actually is, and still end up giving it five stars.

I wasn't in the mood for anything that was already on my Kindle, and I felt like something amusing, so I thought, "That steampunk Wodehouse pastiche [b:What Ho, Automaton!|11097620|What Ho, Automaton!|Chris Dolley||16019636] was funny. I'll get something else by the same guy." I glanced over the Amazon reviews for Resonance, and one of them described it as a "romp", plus it was getting lots of stars, so I grabbed it.

It's not a romp. It's not funny, really, at all, except for moments here and there. What it is is a really, really good technothriller which gripped me almost continuously from beginning to end.

Chris Dolley pulls off a few remarkable feats here. Firstly, he has the characters provide a series of completely different, complex explanations for the strangeness that's going on in their lives, and makes them all sound reasonable. Secondly, he makes an uncommunicative, almost autistic, obsessive-compulsive man who deliberately leads a boring, predictable life his main character, and then keeps me on the edge of my seat through the whole book while I cheer for the guy. And thirdly, he writes an ending that didn't let down the rest of the book.

The premise, when we finally learn what is actually going on, doesn't bear close scrutiny as science or even a self-consistent system, but as a fictional premise it worked well for me. Certainly it was no worse than anything Michael Chricton uses, and Michael Chricton is the author I was most reminded of here.

Even when Chris Dolley isn't funny, he's good. I'll remember that.

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Sunday, 30 September 2012

Growing Up Humming by Mike Spinak

Mike Spinak, who I know on Google+, asked me to review his PDF ebook Growing Up Humming, and gave me free access to a copy in order to do so. He made it clear that he wasn't asking for a favourable review and that I shouldn't pull any punches, but call it as I see it.

Since, as he's surely aware if he's read many of my reviews, that's exactly what I do, I considered his request showed chutzpah. But is it still chutzpah if the book is genuinely really good?

Growing Up Humming is brilliant. Mike is a nature photographer, and a very fine one, as I already knew from seeing his photos posted on G+. He captures the maturation of two hummingbird chicks beautifully, so beautifully that I kept wondering, "How does he get these shots?"

But it's not just the photography that's good. His accompanying text is aimed at a young audience, but I, as an adult, found it both entertaining and educational. Not only did it teach me a lot about Anna's hummingbirds, but it has a subtext about growing up, being taken care of by a parent, learning from her, and then becoming self-sufficient, that while plentifully clear wasn't at all heavy-handed. It arose naturally from the description of what was going on with the hummingbird family, and made the book more than just a recitation of hummingbird facts (interesting though those were).

What's more - and this is something I bang on about a lot, as you know if you follow my reviews - the editing is flawless. It's a brief text, but I didn't spot a single error of grammar, punctuation or spelling. That should be something we can take for granted, but it very much is not (even in books produced by large corporate publishers, these days), and I appreciate it on the increasingly-rare occasions when I find it.

I have no hesitation in recommending Growing Up Humming to anyone with an interest in nature or photography, or anyone who just wants a really entertaining short book of very cool photos with a well-written text. I'm going to show it to my wife and suggest that we buy a copy for her little goddaughter, in fact. It's $3 (USD) from Mike's Naturography site.

Review: Quick Silver

Quick Silver
Quick Silver by Derek Mathias

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I generally enjoyed this fantasy-thriller, except for a couple of problems.

Firstly, the protagonist's wife is not a character. She's the McGuffin, the reason that he runs around doing what he does. She's a plot point. That left her, to my mind, badly underdeveloped and was a significant flaw.

Secondly, while I generally appreciated the unpredictability of the plot twists, towards the end there are a couple of examples of pulling a twist out of thin air. For example, there's nothing in the protagonist's background that suggests, to me, that he would know exactly how to make his own 9mm ammunition when silver bullets are called for. He does it competently, quickly and apparently without looking anything up, so it's as if he's done it before. When? Did I miss something?

Secondly, part of the big resolution is that he's suddenly able to do something that he couldn't do mere seconds before. Again, I felt like I'd missed something, and maybe I had.

The setup for the return of the secondary protagonist was beautifully done, though. One of those "I didn't see that coming but it completely makes sense in retrospect" moments.

I listened to the audio version, and some of the whispery voices were a little annoying (and hard to hear in my car). But generally, apart from the above issues, this is a solid, enjoyable story.

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Friday, 28 September 2012

Review: Mistborn: The Final Empire

Mistborn: The Final Empire
Mistborn: The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

People kept telling me to read Mistborn, and I kept resisting. I'm glad I finally gave in to the chorus of voices.

I resisted for two main reasons. First, I'm not a huge fan of epic fantasy any more. It's so often done badly, and ends up as what I call "elf opera" or a "fantasy phonebook" (thick, boring and full of names). And most epic fantasy seems to have one of only three plots, all of which I'm sick of.

One of those three plots is "low-status person in a cruel empire discovers hidden magical talents and becomes a Person of Importance in great events", and that's the basic plot of Mistborn. And the second reason I resisted picking it up is that word "cruel". I don't enjoy books about cruelty.

Here's the thing, though. If we think about urban fantasy for a minute, there are different ways of dealing with sex. The urban fantasy books I enjoy most acknowledge that sex exists, that it drives human behaviour sometimes, that to some people it's extremely important, it can make you laugh, it can make you cry and so forth. They mention that it happens when it's important to the plot, but the metaphorical camera doesn't linger lovingly on every moment of a, you should excuse the expression, blow-by-blow description. Rather, it does a discreet fade and picks up again the following morning. Other urban fantasy books do the loving lingering and make it all about the sex all the time - and I don't read those ones.

Now, for urban fantasy read epic fantasy, and for sex read cruelty.

Mistborn is an epic fantasy that doesn't linger lovingly on the cruelty. The cruelty is there, it's important to the plot, but it's not what the book is about, and it's always clear that the people who indulge in it are in the wrong and the people who oppose it are in the right. It's not a world of cruelty, it's a world that includes cruelty, and the distinction is important (to me, at least). I don't read Terry Goodkind (who is joint holder of my personal award for most misleading author name, along with Mary Gentle) because of the pornographic way he handles cruelty. I couldn't get beyond the prologue of George R.R. Martin's first Game of Thrones novel for the same reason. But Brandon Sanderson writes about cruelty in a way I'm OK with. Part of the main character's arc in this book, in fact, is learning that not everybody is a cruel betrayer.

Nor is he rewriting the same epic fantasy yet again. He does something different here. In fact, he plays with the epic fantasy cliches in his backstory, very cleverly. It's fresh, it's well-done, it's well-handled. As usual in an epic fantasy, The Final Empire has a large cast of characters, but I never forgot who anyone was, partly because he's good at slipping in little reminders if a character has been off-stage for a while.

The magic system is fresh, too (though a fresh magic system by itself isn't enough to make an epic fantasy interesting on its own, it's certainly enjoyable), and again, I always knew what was going on, even though it's a relatively complex system. Again, this is because he slips in little reminders in how he writes the events: "She burned tin and could see through the mists that surrounded her" (not an actual quote, but that's one of the ways he does it). He even explains the magic system twice, once when the more experienced user of it is patrolling the city using it, and once when that character explains it to the inexperienced protagonist. I was never left confused, which when you have a complex plot, multiple characters and a lot of worldbuilding is quite an achievement.

I will definitely be reading more Brandon Sanderson. He writes fast, which is great, because not only does he already have a lot of books out, but by the time I've read those he will probably have written several more. Hooray!

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Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Review: Matcher Rules

Matcher Rules
Matcher Rules by Mary Holland

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Pro tip: don't do what I did and set this book aside early on because you think it's just an apologetic for polyamory. First of all, it's not that at all, and secondly, it's really good.

I listened to the (free) Podiobooks version, but as is my policy with Podiobooks I enjoy, I'll be buying the ebook in order to support the author. Her website seems to have disappeared, but the ebook is on both Smashwords and Amazon. I took a look at the first couple of pages of the Smashwords sample, and it looks competently punctuated and I didn't spot any horrible typos, which puts it ahead of a good many other books right away.

More than that, though, I found the characters' motivations always believable, and was surprised several times by plot twists I hadn't seen coming - but they always made sense. Other than the society's point of difference (an alien device that enables people to form strong groups), the worldbuilding was fairly thin - standard space-opera, only set on a planet - but the focus was, quite rightly, on that point of difference, and the story is the better for it. As the author's Amazon profile says, she's more interested in how people would live on alien worlds than in the rocket ships they arrived on.

So am I, on the whole, and I found this book thoroughly enjoyable.

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Friday, 21 September 2012

Review: Dead Witch Walking

Dead Witch Walking
Dead Witch Walking by Kim Harrison

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When I asked on Google+ for recommendations for a new series to try, I was given this one. Partway through, I thought I remembered it, and when I checked on Goodreads I had read it before - and given it one star (with no review).

That was a while ago, and I've read a lot of worse books since, so I've upgraded it to a slightly reluctant three stars (the reasonably good, though far from conclusive, ending just barely tipped it over from two).

So what didn't I like? Firstly, there's a lot of infodumping early on. And in fact this book has taught me a valuable lesson about one of the reasons for "show, don't tell".

Not only is showing more interesting, but when you just tell the reader something in a big infodump, what you risk is what I now dub the Kim Harrison Effect, in which the infodumped backstory hasno detectable impact on the events that unfold.

What I mean is this. In the backstory, we have an alternate world that departed from ours in the late 60s, when there was a bioplague spread by genetically engineered tomatoes. (Yes, really.) Most of the world was completely devastated, but the good old USA closed its borders (somehow) and missed the worst of it. Because so many humans died, and because supernaturals (called, for no good reason I can see, "Inderlanders") were immune, the supernaturals have come out in the open now. They're a minority, but now a substantial one. This is explained in first-person narration by the protagonist in a way that makes no sense unless you assume she's dropping backstory to someone from a very different world, i.e. us, by the way. "We never went to the moon..." Why would you say that?

Meanwhile, in the actual story, nothing much other than the Inderlander outing appears to have changed. For example: Starbucks.

In our world, Starbucks (founded in 1971) is ubiquitous. There's a historical reason for this: the Third World, where all coffee is grown, did not become a "charnel pit" at the end of the 60s, the USA did not close its borders, and so coffee is easily available. But in Dead Witch Walking, there's a Starbucks, large as life. One on every corner, is the feeling you get. Just like our world.

Other than the presence of supernaturals, the only impact that we actually see from the supposed apocalypse, as distinct from being told about, is that humans are afraid of tomatoes now.

No, sorry, backstory fail.

Other than that, the rest of the weaknesses are the usual ones. The author has a smaller vocabulary than she thinks she does and uses words which don't mean what she thinks they mean (seriously, "pocketmarked face"?), or would mean what she thinks they mean if they were spelled differently, and the editor needs to play more Pokemon, because he or she didn't catch them all.

More seriously, as usual in urban fantasy, the sassy, and supposedly smart, female protagonist is both more skilled than she rationally ought to be (her spellcasting keeps impressing people, even though she's apparently hardly practiced), and also at the same time is too stupid to live and has to keep getting rescued when her absurd schemes go awry in what seems like every third chapter. In particular, she has to be rescued by a mysterious sexy man who she unaccountably trusts even though he won't give her a straight answer about his background. Sigh.

I don't think I'll read the rest of the series. I'm vaguely curious about the answers to some of the many questions that are left unresolved at the end, such as "why are any of the characters apart from the protagonist and maybe the pixy doing anything that they're doing"? But there are enough better books out there that I don't think I'll bother reading these ones just to find out the answers.

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Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Review: The Shadow of Black Wings

The Shadow of Black Wings
The Shadow of Black Wings by James Calbraith

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Upfront disclaimer: I know the author slightly through interacting with him on Google+, which is why I bought the book. I paid full price and he hasn't given me any incentives to do a review or say nice things. I'm going to be critical in any case, not because I didn't like the book (I did), but because I think he can take it.

I'll start by saying that it's well-written, well-edited and (as far as I could tell, not being an expert on 19th-century Japan or Wales) well-researched. This already puts it ahead of 98% of indie-published books, and many traditionally-published ones.

The author is not a native English speaker, and it occasionally shows in an odd turn of phrase like "neared it to his eye". Mostly, though, the English is above average, better than most native speakers write.

This is the first book in a series, and it's not complete in itself. I don't love that, but it's a long-established fantasy-fiction tradition, and it's not as if the book just stops abruptly (I have read others that do). Given that, some of the criticisms I was going to make about setups with no punchline should probably be held back until I finish the series, which I intend to do. I'll note them here anyway so that I don't forget.

When I read the sample before buying the ebook, my first thought was that the worldbuilding was maybe a bit over-exhuberant. They're dragonriders? OK, fine, nothing new there, but it's cool. They can channel the magic of their dragons? Even cooler, and original as far as I know. Wait, they can also shapeshift into dragonlike beings? That may be just a little too cool. And in fact it never comes up again in the rest of this first volume - the first setup with no punchline (so far).

Then there are a couple of things that I would have done differently if it had been me, but there may be a reason that I haven't seen yet. There are a couple of linked reasons why I would have done these things differently: credibility and importance to the plot.

What I mean is, the history of this version of the world is very, very different. No Christianity, no fall of the Roman Empire, and quite a few other consequential changes (plus all the magic, of course). So it's highly unlikely that the same individuals, with the same names, would be born in the equivalent of the 19th century, given that very different history. (Victoria is on the throne, and Brunel is a prominent wizard.) It also, at least in this book, makes no difference to the plot, since these people, and several historical characters like Henry VII, are mentioned but don't appear on stage. Another setup with no punchline.

On the other hand, I would find it a lot more credible for many countries to retain similar names to the ones that they had in reality, and it would also have made it easier to figure out which countries were actually being talked about. I have a pretty good grasp of history and geography, so I could mostly follow the differences (and there's a map), but I did struggle, and I think a lot of people would have no idea. Even a few familiar names would have helped a lot.

About halfway through, the viewpoint character drops completely out of sight for several chapters and we meet several new people we haven't seen before. One has red hair, which is variously described as "amber" (which sounds dark blonde), "copper", "auburn" and "strawberry blonde". Those are very different hair colours, so I was left without a clear idea of what she actually looked like.

This shift in viewpoint, I think, contributed to the fact that I put the book down for a while and read other things. A clearer through-line focussed on telling just one story about just one person or group of people would have held my attention better.

Having said all that, this is a rich setting, the characters are appealing if so far not all that heroic, the writing is excellent and I will definitely be getting the next in the series, because I want to know what happens next (and also have been enjoying the ride).

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Saturday, 8 September 2012

Review: Worldsoul

Worldsoul by Liz Williams

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I remember reading a book by Liz Williams before, though I'm not sure of the title. I think it was [b:The Poison Master|317443|The Poison Master|Liz Williams||308259]. As I recall, I was a little disappointed that, with such wonderful materials to work with (Dr Dee!), she had crafted a less-than-amazing book.

She's improved since then, clearly. I enjoyed Worldsoul, especially the second half (the first half I found a little slow-moving). The setting, a magical city more-or-less powered by story, is wonderful, and she doesn't waste too much time on setting-exploration for its own sake, but at the same time conveyed a wonderful sense of a fascinating place.

What I did find less than wonderful was the constant cutting back and forth between multiple viewpoint characters. It's a technique that takes careful handling, and for me it was a little overdone. Each of the characters was interesting and distinctive, but it made the already-complex plot harder to follow.

There were also one or two moments that disturbed my immersion a little by seeming to mix technological levels. At one point, one of the viewpoint characters goes to another room and checks with someone in another part of the city on the bona fides of another character. We're not shown or told what mechanism she uses to do this, whether there are telephones that are never explicitly mentioned anywhere and that hardly anyone else uses, or if there was a magical means of communication, or what. I would rather have had some other means of checking used, like a veracity spell or something, that didn't break my conception of the world.

Apart from those quibbles, Worldsoul was very much to my taste, and I'm glad to see that it's the start of a trilogy.

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Monday, 3 September 2012

Review: Billibub Baddings and the Case of the Singing Sword

Billibub Baddings and the Case of the Singing Sword
Billibub Baddings and the Case of the Singing Sword by Tee Morris

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Here's an exercise.

Go and read a Damon Runyon short story. Something by Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler will probably do as well, but I know Runyon, so I say Runyon.

Now take a look at the preview of this book.

See the difference in the writing?

If you don't see the difference, you may enjoy this one.

Of course, it's a little unfair to compare anyone to those masters, but if someone is writing a hard-boiled detective story, even mashed up with an epic fantasy character, I'd like to think that they'd adopt some of the style. Swift, action-packed, vivid prose, with not a word wasted, and metaphors that leap off the page. Not dense, slow, overwritten, vague, and determined to drive every minor point thoroughly into the ground.

A little over halfway through, I couldn't take the style any more and stopped reading. The story wasn't anything out of the ordinary (given "fantasy dwarf as hardboiled detective", anyway), and was moving so slowly through the dense thickets of unremarkable imagery that I lost interest.

Plus the flappers were all curvy, and had long hair. Has the author ever looked at a picture of a flapper?

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Review: Redshirts

Redshirts by John Scalzi

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I read this largely because of Patrick Rothfuss's recommendation, which says, in part, that he can't think of another book that ever made him laugh this much. Around or at the same time, Rothfuss also recommended [b:Ready Player One|9969571|Ready Player One|Ernest Cline||14863741].

What I have learned from this is that even though Rothfuss is one of my favourite writers, his taste in reading and mine are very different.

I hated Ready Player One by page six, and stopped, so I haven't reviewed it (it doesn't seem fair to review something based on so little reading). I read all of Redshirts, though. It wasn't bad. I just less than less than three it.

Scalzi has done something quite clever here, in a way. You see, if someone points, as I'm about to, to the flaws in the book, he has a ready-made excuse: It's meant to be bad writing. That's the point.

Most of the characters are, of course, a little thin (they're walk-on, walk-off characters in a bad SF TV series, after all), though I thought the protagonist was fairly well developed by the end. The dialogue is a little stilted starting out, but I soon stopped noticing it.

One of the biggest problems I had, though, was the lack of description of anyone or anything. I have no idea what any of these people look like, except that one is "handsome" and another one has a beard. That's it. We don't know what colour their hair is, even. We don't know what colour anything is, not even the shirts (since the dream sequence in which the writer meets the redshirts is a dream sequence, and the redness of the shirts is probably metaphorical). One of the officers is called Q'eeng. Is he Asian? African? Alien? Azerbaijani? We're never told. I can't picture a single one of the characters, which in a book about a TV show is... let's be kind and say "surprising".

The other big thing, and it's huge, is the plot hole. So massive is it that it collapses into a black plot hole and is able to be used as a means of traveling not only back in time but from fiction to reality. It makes absolutely no sense, which I suppose is part of the joke, or something, but you have to simultaneously take it seriously because it's what enables the story to be resolved.

I clearly have a different sense of humour from Rothfuss, because I didn't get a single laugh out of it. Admittedly I'm a New Zealander and have a British-style sense of humour, and Scalzi and Rothfuss are both American. I'm going to assume that's the reason.

Some reviewers have complained about the three codas. Essentially, they're what happens when someone who is a competent pulp writer tries to be literary and meta and postmodern, but it almost worked a bit for me. By the end of the third one I was mildly emotionally engaged, though the first one was way too long for my taste and almost lost me partway through.

I think what I'm saying is that I was seriously underwhelmed, and very glad that I followed my instincts and got this from the library instead of paying ten bucks for the ebook (which, by the way, Tor, is about $2 more than I'm prepared to pay for any ebook, even for a book I know I'll love).

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Sunday, 2 September 2012

Review: The Spirit War

The Spirit War
The Spirit War by Rachel Aaron

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I have to say, I enjoyed the first couple of Eli Monpress books more than the second and third, because the first two were all about the caper. Three and four have become very serious, and in many ways standard, epic fantasy, filled with the clash of kingdoms, desperate magical battles and a sinister dark threat to the world.

It's well done, but it's not really what I signed up for based on the start of Book 1.

The other annoying thing, to me, is that four out of five significant characters are alienated from their parents (the fifth, Nico, doesn't know who her parents were). One or two, fine, but four (Eli, Josef, Miranda and Slorn)? It's pushing the theme too far. And there's really no counterbalancing situation where there's someone who gets on well with his or her parents, or a couple who are in love and together (not separated by tragedy and eventual death). The whole book is full of dysfunctional people, from the goddess Benehime on down. They don't just have issues, the have ISSUES, which somehow don't quite prevent them from saving the day when the crunch comes, but very nearly (and, of course, the day only needs saving because of ISSUES).

I'll definitely read the forthcoming book, which I take by the title, Spirit's End, to be the last one. I'm invested enough in the story to want to know how it ends. But I'm liking the characters less in every book.

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Review: Mogworld

Mogworld by Yahtzee Croshaw

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sir Terry Pratchett pretty much has the actually-funny funny fantasy genre locked up, but this is a good contribution to it. The protagonist (who insists he isn't a hero) reminds me of a Tom Holt protagonist: a bit of a loser, hapless, unhappy with his life. There's even a nerd girl, another staple of Tom Holt, though Holt probably would have called her Jane rather than Meryl.

Because Mogworld has a setup where nobody dies permanently, the ultraviolence and slaughter is not as horrifying as it otherwise would be, and I was able to take it as funny, which I couldn't have done if it meant more. A book told from the perspective of a walking corpse who serves an evil necromancer wouldn't normally be my thing, but Croshaw makes it work.

The story moves along at a good pace and the characters, while thin, are amusing in their eccentricity. The main thing that annoyed me was that the first-person narrator, Jim, is supposed to be the son of a pig farmer in a medieval-style fantasy setting who somehow got into magic college (it's never explained how), but a lot of his similes and metaphors are from modern urban life.

If you don't take it at all seriously it's an amusing piece of whimsy. Recommended especially for Tom Holt fans and people who play MMORGs.

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Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Review: Knight Esquire

Knight Esquire
Knight Esquire by P.S. Power

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I felt annoyed, reading this book. Actually, I felt insulted.
The first in the series was a little rough. It was poorly punctuated and a bit rambling. But it was nothing like as bad as this.
This one reads like a first draft by someone who was typing too fast and whose grasp of basic spelling is loose, to say the least. (Or, as the author would quite likely spell it, "too say the lest".) The to/too confusion, in both directions, crops up frequently, though not consistently - at one point there are three consecutive sentences, and two of them have it right and the middle one is wrong. There are grocer's apostrophes, there are missing apostrophes, there are missing words in sentences, there are many, many incorrect homophones up to and including "he'd" for "head". It's a mess.
Part of the reason I say that I feel insulted is that this book is not, apparently, self-published. (That would be bad enough, because I think it's disrespectful to your readers to just slam your first draft up on Amazon without doing more than a cursory spell-check. People do it, but in my mind it's rude and less than professional.)
It's much worse if you're published by a small press. I've visited the publisher's website, and although P.S. Power's books are the majority of what they put out, there are other authors listed there, and they are advertising for submissions.
My advice would be not to send them any. If they have a copy editor - and this book doesn't show any evidence that they do - then that person is doing an incredibly poor job. That's disrespectful not only to the readers, but to the authors. They're basically adding no value beyond, possibly, getting a cover designed. I suppose that explains why they only take a 10% cut.
Even leaving aside the roughness of the English (which is hard to do, because it was just so bad), I didn't enjoy this book as much as the first in the series. The main character, Tor, spends about the first third of the book having a serious pity party and asking a tediously large number of rhetorical questions of himself. Then he perks up a little and starts replacing his monogamous lower-class sexual morality with that of the "royals" (which is how all the nobility, however far from the actual royal family, are referred to). This basically boils down to "extreme promiscuity from at least the mid-teens, persisting beyond marriage," and frankly I found it a little repellent. We're told at various places in the two books that people are sometimes jealous, but nobody actually seems to be, just like most of the nobility don't act like the dangerous high-handed despots that we're being told about either. They're described as something like actual medieval nobles (though there are hints that this is a post-apocalyptic future), but they act like hippies: peace, free love and egalitarianism, man. Oh, apart from the odd berserker rage, of course.
At one point in my reading I was considering, in the spirit of the main character's generosity, offering to do a free edit. The setting is interesting, the premise is fresh, the main character (apart from his tendency to go on and on, and his cluelessness, and the way he gets down on himself) is appealing and different. I've decided not to do that, though, for a few reasons.
Firstly, I couldn't find a web presence for the author where I could make contact. (I might not have looked hard enough, but the impression I get is that the author doesn't want to engage with readers. I couldn't even find out if P.S. Power is a man or a woman, or what country he or she lives in, though I'm betting on the USA based on the occasional clanging American colloquialism that gets randomly dropped into the middle of the prose.)
Secondly, editing is the job of the publisher they already have.
And thirdly, as I read on I liked the book less and less. Although I'd kind of like to know what happens next, I won't be buying the next one.
It's a pity. I thought I'd found a series I could enjoy, and was fully prepared to buy all of them. But this is a big letdown.

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Sunday, 19 August 2012

Review: The Builder

The Builder
The Builder by P.S. Power

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'm giving this four stars because it's basically that good, despite some issues I'll talk about in a minute. It has some elements in it that I don't see often enough in fantasy, and that appeals to me.

Firstly, the main character, Tor, isn't, thankfully, a Chosen One who must stand against the Dark Lord. He's not a warrior at all, in fact. He's not on a quest, either, nor is he trying either to destroy anything, or out preserve the status quo. His actions aren't (at least, in this first book) cosmic in scope. Rather, he makes things and solves practical problems that affect people's ordinary lives.

He's a generous and good-hearted person who doesn't care about money or status. He just wants to make things and help people.

Unlike most fantasy mages, he's also a meditator. Now, if magic was real, I would expect it to require the kind of focus that meditation gives, but it's a theme you seldom see in fantasy fiction. Usually, people get their powers because they're under great stress in a desperate situation (and they're the Chosen One), despite being surly, undisciplined little so-and-sos half the time. To be fair, there are a couple of scenes here where Tor uses unexpected levels of power in a challenging situation, but the foundation is clearly the meditation.

And here is one of the issues. The narration, particularly at first, is breathless and all over the place, partly because the author is a little shaky on how to use commas and also tends to write run-on sentences. It comes across more like someone who is ADD than the disciplined meditator Tor is presented as, though it does settle down a little later on.

Tor is also very naive. He's clueless about what's going on almost all of the time, partly because of his country background, but also because he has picked up a low opinion of himself, so he doesn't think anyone really values his work or could find him attractive. The naiveté is so sustained that it borders very closely on being overdone, and maybe crosses that border a few times.

The final issue is that the book ends very abruptly. (Imagine I stopped my review there, and you may get the same feeling I had when I read the last page.)

Fortunately, there are four or five others in the series, and I've already bought the next one. An author who's doing something a little different in fantasy deserves support, even if they're not yet doing it perfectly.

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Saturday, 18 August 2012

Review: What Ho, Automaton!

What Ho, Automaton!
What Ho, Automaton! by Chris Dolley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Once I've said "steampunk P.G. Wodehouse," you're either in or out. But if you're in, let me clear up a few points you might be wondering about.
First, is it a good pastiche? Yes, it is. We have Reggie Worcester, clueless man-about-town, and his gentleman's personal automaton Reeves, who had been shut in a cupboard in the Drones Club attic for 14 years. We have Reggie's Aunt Bertha, prize pigs, country houses, accidental and unwanted engagements, and Reeves' giant steam-powered brain proposing ingenious solutions. We also have Prometheans (Frankenstein's Monster-style creatures, human and otherwise). There's no golf, though, and no Mr Mulliner.
So is it a perfect pastiche? No, not quite. There are a few words used incorrectly here and there, and there's a slight hint of the risque that never would have made it into Wodehouse. The second adventure adds Sherlock Holmes to the mix, with missing debutantes and a zeppelin, and is more adventure novel than Wodehouse novel.
I'd say, though, that if you like steampunk, Wodehouse and Sherlock Holmes you'll enjoy this. I did.

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Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Review: Spellcast

Spellcast by Barbara Ashford

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When I read the premise of this book - magic in a summer stock theatre company in Vermont - and also Carrie Vaughn's front-cover quote, "Warm, humorous, emotional, heartfelt and full of magic", I was expecting something like [a:Debora Geary|4654545|Debora Geary|] produces in her Witch novels. Well... it is and it isn't.

There are moments where I was moved. There are moments where I laughed out loud, usually at a bit of characterization. But those moments are separated by long stretches which sometimes came very close to tedium.

A big part of the problem is that a lot of the plot involves people learning life lessons from the characters they're playing in the musicals, and if you don't know the musicals they're performing there's a heck of a lot of stuff that you just miss. The author does manage to convey the general plots of the musicals and an idea of what the main characters are like, but it didn't have the impact for me that it might have for someone who was familiar with the shows.

The first-person narrator starts out rather world-weary and cynical, and stays exclusively that way for a long time. I think the character arc is well-handled, but it still doesn't make for a lot of warm moments in the front two-thirds or so of the book.

And then, there are too many characters to keep track of. At one point early on I was reading about Gary doing something-or-other, and thinking, "Gary? Who the hell is Gary? Was he introduced at some point? What does he look like?" I paged back to the mass introductions near the start, but I never did find him.

Again, the premise of the book means that there's a large cast, because the musicals have large casts, but fewer of them, with clearer distinguishing features which were mentioned more than once, would have been a lot easier to follow (and be interested in). Or why not have a cast list so that the audience can keep straight who's who, who they play in each musical (there are three), and their relationships to one another? Some relationships would have been spoilers for important plot points, but you could go with the ones that the viewpoint character perceived at the start.

To be honest, I think less would be more. In the paperback edition I read, the book finishes on page 433. If some kindly fairy editor cut a hundred pages, six or eight characters, one of the three musicals and a big chunk of angst I think I would have enjoyed the book more than I did.

It had its moments, but they were too far apart.

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