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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