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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Saturday, 11 August 2012

Review: The Clockwork Giant

The Clockwork Giant
The Clockwork Giant by Brooke Johnson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I really wanted to like this more than I did.

I hesitated between two and three stars. In the end I gave it three, because it is well edited and the writing shows promise, but for me there were significant issues with the story itself.

If you look at the author's blog, you will see that she's very into Vladimir Propp's analysis of fairy tales. I think this has had a few unfortunate effects.

First of all, a lot of the time I didn't think that the characters reacted like real people. For example: The protagonist's foster mother reveals that she's always known the protag's origin, but never told her, and never, apparently, made a serious attempt to find her family [SPOILER: the founding family of the city! Incredibly prominent!] because she didn't know how to contact them. Protagonist takes this without outrage or indeed much reaction at all.

It also means that the plot is kind of a cliche. Orphan, raised in poverty, of noble birth, destiny, treasured possessions which prove her heritage, blah blah blah, we've heard it a thousand times.

Worse than that, though, I think it creates an underlying set of narrative expectations that work against the surface story that the author is trying to tell, which is also the story that I wanted to read: the story of a competent, capable, strong female protagonist who (as she repeatedly says) doesn't need to be protected. But she totally does. Almost every decision she makes for herself is poorly thought through, gets her into worse trouble, and creates a situation where a man needs to rescue her (and does). The rest of the time she's passively reacting to what's going on around her. I can't think of a single instance where she was faced with a genuine choice and made, on her own, a well-judged, sensible, morally correct decision that arose out of her underlying character, which is what I want my heroes (male or female) to do.

I found my suspension of disbelief continually broken by the characters doing things that made no sense to me, and I think it was because the author was trying to write a steampunk story using fairy-tale tropes, instead of just writing either a steampunk story or a fairy story.

It's a pity, because the steampunk bits are excellent. The author gives the impression (at least to a layman like myself) that she actually understands how clockwork works, rather than just invoking it as a buzz word like so many steampunk authors do. There is, as usual, a bit more brass than is strictly necessary, and the Luddites are a bit displaced in time, but we expect this kind of license in the genre. What I don't expect, though, is a plot and characters based on fairy-tale thinking mixed in with the steampunk. For me, it didn't work.

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Monday, 6 August 2012

Review: No Hero

No Hero
No Hero by Jonathan Wood

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Now this is a good one.
The premise reminds me very much of Charles Stross's Laundry novels: underfunded British secret department using magic to protect our world from Lovecraftian horrors. Stross's is nerdier, because the main character/narrator is a programmer, whereas here the main character/narrator is a police detective who watches too many action movies and is drawn into the secret department when he's too good at his job. Stross's is also more of a satire on British bureaucracy, whereas this is more of a straight urban fantasy thriller, a bit like the more action-packed parts of Jim Butcher's Dresden Files.
Not that it isn't funny. Arthur Wallace, the narrator, has a keen self-deprecating British sense of humour even in the middle of battling magic-distorted creatures under the control of other-dimensional mindworms out to destroy our entire reality. His habit of asking himself "What would Kurt Russell do?" is referenced perhaps two or three times too often, but despite his self-doubt, his mistakes and his belief that he's "no hero", he manages to provide the leadership that the reduced and neglected team at MI37 need.
If you're actually British or know the difference between British and American language, you'll notice that the book has been translated into American (presumably a market thing). At first I was wondering whether the author was an American doing a good, but far from great impression of being English, but he actually is an Englishman living in America, and the references to "bangs", "fries" and "Mom" are therefore intentional. I found it slightly distracting but not too much so, and now that I know the reason it probably won't bother me in the second book.
The book is well-edited (I only spotted one or two typos, and if you follow my reviews you'll know that I'd see more if they were there). The action keeps flowing while still allowing time for character development and a little bit of reflection on what's important. Each character is distinct and clearly characterized, though Shaw, the boss, remained a little vague to me, partly because she's back at the office through most of the action and doesn't say a great deal when she is on screen. The dialogue is witty (and part of the characterization), and the author strikes a good balance between helping us to identify with the narrator's "what the hell is going on?" feeling and not giving enough background to be understandable.
I'm looking forward to reading the second book soon.

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Friday, 3 August 2012

Review: Blackstone & Brenwen: The Mirror & The Meretrix

Blackstone & Brenwen: The Mirror & The Meretrix
Blackstone & Brenwen: The Mirror & The Meretrix by Andrew D. Mellusco

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a difficult book to review, because there are two sides to consider. Almost like a trial, really.
The case for the defense is that I read it all (and it's not especially short) and never considered stopping, despite the considerable issues which I'll get to in a moment. As a story, I thought it was well done. The setting is quirky, even whimsical, but in a good way; the adaptation of fairy tales shows an excellent familiarity with the genre and is well-handled; the mystery and the trial are well-paced.
This is a very unusual mashup of fairy tales and a legal thriller, and yet it works. It's filled with fairy-tale creatures (centaurs, giants, honest and idealistic lawyers - just kidding, they do exist, I know some personally), with references to classic fairy tales like Snow White, Rose Red, Jack and the Beanstalk and Little Red Riding Hood, as well as less well-known examples and other literary and mythical genres. But at the same time it's the story of a legal defense in a murder case. It's set in a World Tree of multiple realms in which magic is in everyday use, but it also deals with insurance investigation.
This mixture of the magical and the mundane mostly works. But here's the case for the prosecution.
The book is in terrible, desperate, crying need of an editor. I was an editor for Hodders years ago, and I don't remember ever seeing a manuscript as bad as this come in, even from a journalist (you think I'm joking, but I'm really not). On the other hand, I've seen something with nearly as many errors of language and a less enjoyable and engaging story published in paperback by Harper Collins (and it won at least one award), so the huge number of errors doesn't need to be fatal. What it is, though, is intensely annoying.
At one point, I wondered if the author had English as his second language, because of the oddly-phrased sentences and multiple basic misspellings. (T-H-R-O-W-N is not how you spell the thing the king sits on, to give only one of literally dozens, perhaps even hundreds, of examples.)
When I checked his biography it told me that he in fact teaches English as a second language, and one of my friends who has also done this tells me that teaching English in a foreign country for a long time can impact your own English grammar. I'm going to assume that this is the reason for the badly phrased sentences, but I don't think the spelling can be excused that easily. Another reviewer mentioned finding only three mistakes; I can only assume they were talking about just one page of the book. I even wondered if the author was blind at one point and had never seen words in their written form, since the only person I know who makes these mistakes so often is blind and uses a text-to-speech reader.
Some people, I know, do have a lot of trouble with homophones (words that sound like other words). If you know that's you (and I can't believe the author doesn't), please, please find someone who doesn't have the same problem and get them to go over your manuscript before you publish it. Or use a dictionary. Don't just guess, and guess wrong on about two pages out of three.
Ironically enough, one of the plot points in the book turns on a homophone mistake, which amused me greatly.
If you use a word that isn't in everyday use, also, please make sure you know what it means. I'm pretty sure that the author thinks that "courtesan" means "a member of the King's court". It doesn't. It means a prostitute.
Another thing that makes writing look amateur is poorly placed or missing commas. Look at this sentence from the blurb: "Meanwhile Blackstone's lawyers, Sandman, Vincent Traum and, Fire-Nymph, Fury..." Remove the commas after "Sandman", "and" and "Fire-Nymph", and you will have a properly punctuated sentence. And then take those commas, multiply them by several hundred, and place them in sentences like these: "Only you can break the spell Briana". Put them before the person's name or other term of address. The author does this sometimes, but very rarely, and the lack of the comma makes the sentences sound breathless, and look like they're written by someone who doesn't know how to use their basic linguistic tools.
So much for the language, or at least the English language. (I could criticize the Latin, as well, but when the English is so bad I don't think we can expect correct Latin singulars and plurals.) Oh, one more language problem as a transition to the world-building. Referring to the female centaur as a "Mare'ess" was something I found incredibly annoying. Not only because of that ridiculous apostrophe (although that was extremely annoying), but because the word "mare" is already feminine. It doesn't need the "-ess" ending.
So, worldbuilding. As I mentioned above, the setting is a World Tree, and for the most part it's a good concept and I liked what the author did with it. There were some undigested infodumps which could be better incorporated, but overall, not bad. The timekeeping, though, was irritating. I can accept "ring-years" instead of "years", fine, it's a World Tree, there's a different astronomical situation, though what that is and what rings have to do with it is never clarified. But if you have lengths of time that are the same as hours and minutes, call them hours and minutes, not "hour-turns" (or, occasionally, I think, "ring-hours") and "minute-turns". I assume the "turns" part has to do with sand timers, except that sand timers don't seem to be present and all the timekeeping devices that are mentioned are mechanical clocks. It's a difference that makes no difference, and is simply distracting, which when the language usage is already so distracting is not a good thing.
My verdict, in the end, was three stars. I gave the third star a little reluctantly, because there are so very many basic issues with the language. But if those were corrected it would be a cracking good book, easily worth four stars, and I want to encourage the author to get this and his next book professionally edited so that it shines as it ought to.

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