Sunday, 24 February 2013

Review: Throne of the Crescent Moon

Throne of the Crescent Moon
Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'd heard good things of this, so I persevered through the prologue, despite the fact that torture usually puts me off a book instantly. I still think it could have been dispensed with, and I'm dinging the book one star for it, on the understanding that it's mainly because that aspect is a poor match for my personal taste. But I'm glad I kept reading, because this was very good.

The thing Saladin Ahmed does best in this book is to set up conflicted characters. Each of the characters has a powerful conflict making them discontented, even miserable, and a powerful duty driving them onwards despite it. I don't think I've ever seen it done so well, and it makes for an excellent, if rather dark, book.

To the ratings. For language, I'll give four and a half stars. While it didn't rise to five-star greatness, the language was fresh, vivid, kept the book moving and was excellently edited. I think I only spotted one typo.

I can't go back and check, because I was reading a hardback from the library, not an ebook, so I couldn't highlight the typo. And I wasn't reading an ebook because for some reason the publishers have not made an ebook edition available in the Asia-Pacific region. That's a pity, because I'd like Saladin Ahmed to have some money for the enjoyment I just had. Still, it was his choice to publish traditionally, with all the downsides as well as upsides that entails.

Anyway, getting off my soapbox again: For plot, four stars. As I mentioned, it keeps moving well, the multiple viewpoint characters enhance it rather than hindering it, it's well-orchestrated and ties up nicely. It's a swashbuckler, but not just a swashbuckler.

The main reason it's not just a swashbuckler is the characters. They develop, their personal stories move on as well as their collective story, they're distinct and memorable. There are things they want and can't have, there are things they struggle and sacrifice for, they're willing to endure loss for the sake of others, which is what I want in my heroes. The main villains are out-and-out villainous, but there is at least one significant ambiguous character who could be a hero or a villain, depending. Five stars for the characters, wish I had more to give.

Finally, the setting. It's not your usual Eurocentric fantasy. That alone makes it more interesting than most fantasy that's been written over the last 30 years or more. And yet, as someone whose main familiarity with this kind of setting is from reading the Arabian Nights, I was able to get into it straight away and understand what was going on. It's not all the same, either. The various Crescent Moon Kingdoms each have several different peoples, whose distinctiveness comes through and hints at a larger, deeper setting that hasn't all been put into the book (always a good thing). Four and a half stars for setting, because I could imagine it being done better (though I've seldom seen that).

It's really a five-star book. I just took one star off for the torture scenes, because I dislike that so much.

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Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Review: Bookworm

Bookworm by Christopher Nuttall

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The main problem with this book is the spoiled protagonist.

I'm using "spoiled protagonist" as a kind of technical term (I wrote a blog post on it, partly prompted by this book: In summary, a spoiled protagonist is a main character who is treated by everyone else in the book as if they were the Chosen One of prophecy, even though, in the book, they're not. The sternest authorities forgive their transgressions, people sacrifice their lives to save them, and they need only whine a little to be given whatever they want, however little they deserve it and however little sense it makes.

Such is Elaine. The logical thing for the authorities to do with her would have been to lock her up for the duration of the emergency, or kill her. That would have left no story, though, so she's allowed to run around loose, even though that risks dangerous knowledge getting into the hands of lunatics who would destroy the world with it.

The language is competent, with few editing errors, but doesn't rise above the ordinary. There are no cleverly-turned phrases or well-chosen metaphors. It's a solid three stars for language.

The plot depends in part on people not acting intelligently, which puts me off a book, but is otherwise competent enough. Two and a half stars.

Character I've already mentioned. Two stars.

The setting swoops in and barely saves the book at four stars. It's detailed, and it feels like there's a whole world with history and geography. There are some issues, though. The Asterix the Gaul reference struck me as silly, and the suspenseful denouement is not the place for infodumps. There's a mismatch between the barely contained anarchy that's described and the just and reasonable authorities that we actually see.

The book has definite strengths, but it also has significant problems. On average, I found it average.

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Thursday, 14 February 2013

Review: The Beginner

The Beginner
The Beginner by Blake M. Petit

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Even though I'm not a horror reader, I picked this up because of how much I enjoyed the author's previous book, [b:Other People's Heroes|1792929|Other People's Heroes|Blake M. Petit||1791912]. It grabbed me straight away and kept me reading, despite the higher-than-I-usually-go-for body count. Not that there are any bodies; the supernatural threat removes people from existence entirely, including everyone's memories of them.

It has fewer editing issues than the other book, though there are some. Most of them are along the lines of "if only should could get it to him" or "bailing wire". There are about a dozen of these that I noticed, plus some odd word choices that I couldn't be sure were wrong. The problems are more at a different level, like a woman whose almond-shaped eyebrows hint at exotic ancestry (I should say so).

The worst problems are with the author's lack of gun knowledge. I'm no gun expert, but I know that you hunt ducks with a shotgun, not a rifle (and definitely not a pellet gun). A shotgun later morphs into a rifle over the course of several pages, and a character twirls the "barrel" of a revolver.

There are a lot of shifts of viewpoint character, and it isn't always clear at the start of a scene who has the viewpoint, since it often isn't the first person who's mentioned. That makes starting a new scene mildly disorienting sometimes.

Apart from these issues, I didn't notice too many problems with the writing while I was reading the book, since the thrilling pace kept me interested and uncritically suspending disbelief, though the more I thought about the premise afterwards, the less likely (and consistent) it seemed. What is destroyed when someone is "closed", and what remains behind? Anything from a bus to a birth certificate can remain, and seemingly anything up to a popular sitcom (with all its videotape, box sets, TV Guide mentions, trivia and memorabilia, presumably) can be wiped out.

Regardless, I enjoyed the ride. So what if the indie filmmaker is making what sounds like a perfectly bland Hollywood movie? The Hollywood movie that is the book was enjoyable anyway. I liked the characters, loved the snarky, clever dialogue, and thrilled to the suspense. Take it for what it is: a summer blockbuster that doesn't have to make complete sense or get everything right in order to be entertaining.

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Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Review: Owl Dance

Owl Dance
Owl Dance by David Lee Summers

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I picked up this book because the premise really appealed to me: a steampunk Western adventure with warm, positive characters. Unfortunately, the execution let it down a little.

Firstly, the language. The book was mostly correctly punctuated, though the hyphenation needs work, and, apart from a few sentences with missing words, it was grammatical, but it was written very simply, as if intended for children or speakers of English as a second language. Also, it dwells on mundane details of what the characters did, which I soon found tedious. For example: "Fatemeh lit two lamps, then sat down and pulled off her shoes." There are a great many sentences, and in fact whole paragraphs, like this, which do nothing to advance plot, character or setting and, if they were cut, would improve the pacing.

When the author does choose a less common vocabulary word, it's not always the right one. We have compliment instead of complement, diffuse instead of defuse, telegraph used to mean telegram, tennants (which isn't a word at all) instead of tenets, and sojourn, which means staying in one place, used to mean moving from one place to another.

Language gets three stars, and it's really two and a half, because the over-simplistic style and excess of details annoyed me.

Now, the plot.

I found several aspects of the plot unlikely to the point of unbelievability. I'm not talking about the science-fictional aspects as such - I accept those as legitimate targets for suspension of disbelief - but there were actions the characters took, and coincidences that occurred, which I couldn't quite swallow.

[spoilers] For example, the main male character gets one of two reactions from people. It's either "you're a filthy Mexican" or "I trust you completely and excessively". There doesn't seem to be any middle ground. At one point, a US Army major who knows that this man is wanted by the law, and who has been helped by him in an important way in the past (but not one that seems to me like evidence of unusual character or ability), does the following:

1. Sends him a telegram in California asking him to return to New Mexico, where he's wanted, and help with a problem they have which could have been taken care of by local people. It's not clear how the Major knows where he is.

2. After the main character's been only partially successful, and is captured by a bounty hunter:

a) Stops an urgent march which he's already said he can't stop in order to return to the fort he's supposed to be marching from,
b) Pays a very large amount of money to the bounty hunter to free him, and
c) Recruits him.

This makes no sense to me. It's a plot device to get the hero to where he needs to be for the story to work. And when he gets there, his character armour preserves him, and one of his companions, from an explosion so that he can give the other characters extra motivation to capture an airship which they were already planning to capture, and the companion can let them know he's in there. One of those characters, incidentally, is a pirate who's been basically let off hanging because the female main character convinces people that he didn't mean any real harm and was just misguided. [/spoilers]

Plot: three stars at best. Two, really.

Now, characters. I've already mentioned that the main character is treated like the Chosen One who everyone either helps or opposes disproportionately, and that several characters in authority act more leniently than I found realistic. The character I had real trouble with, though, was William Bonney, Billy the Kid. According to everything I've ever heard about him, he was a vicious little punk who would have considered anyone who helped him a sucker to be betrayed, but here he's basically a misguided kid who responds to a little kindness with considerable loyalty.

I liked Fatemeh, the female main character, but she was a little too perfect, and I didn't feel she had a real arc of change. She was also inconsistent: a pacifist until something she cared about required fighting, an opponent of mining and oil drilling but delighted with the technologies those industries supported.

Characters: again, three stars at best.

Finally, setting. For a long time, I thought this wasn't a very steampunky setting at all, that it was more-or-less the historical nineteenth century with a bit of a science-fictional premise. Then we hit the clockwork wolf, and then the owl ornithopters, and then the airships, and it started to make more sense as steampunk. The problem is that some of these things aren't well-justified. The owl ornithopters, for example, are specifically said to be technologically unlikely; there's no explanation for why they exist anyway. Fatemeh's connection with the real owls, likewise, isn't explained or justified.

It's an appealing setting, though, so I'll give it slightly more than three stars and balance out the points lost on language, plot and character.

Three stars overall. I didn't dislike it, but I'm afraid I was disappointed and felt the premise hadn't been done justice.

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Friday, 1 February 2013

Review: Annabel Scheme

Annabel Scheme
Annabel Scheme by Robin Sloan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have two books on my Kindle at the moment that were funded by Kickstarters, neither of which I participated in. One is awkwardly and choppily written, with cardboard characters and no sense of humour. This is the other one.

Set in an alternate world in which Google's place is filled by a company called Grail (a brilliant name for a search engine, by the way), and Wikipedia's by "Open Britannica", Annabel Scheme is difficult to categorize. Is it a detective novel? An urban fantasy? A technothriller with a touch of cyberpunk? It's all of those at once. It reminds me a little of [a:Charles Stross|8794|Charles Stross|]'s Laundry novels with the mix of high technology and demons.

It's narrated by an AI in the Watson role, observing events through detective Annabel Scheme's high-tech earrings. That's clever, because the point of view follows Scheme and yet isn't her POV. It also means, though, that the first-person narrator can, when the plot requires it, both go with Scheme and also be separated from her, observing from a distance, just by means of detaching one earring.

I thought briefly that the book was going to consist of a series of loosely linked cases featuring Scheme, but the second part turned out to be closely related to the case apparently resolved in the first part, and quickly escalated to involve someone who had been very important to Scheme in the past (nice raising of the stakes there). The ending, though, I felt had a couple of issues. The lawyer-barrister is credited by the AI, Hu, with finding a loophole that saved the day, but I somehow completely missed what that was. He didn't seem to contribute anything as far as I could tell. Also, the hint dropped by Scheme's mentor seemed completely obvious to me, but puzzled both Scheme and Hu.

Apart from those weaknesses (and I may just have missed something in the first case), I thought this was very well done. I'll be keeping a close eye on Robin Sloan, having also enjoyed his [b:Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore|13538873|Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore|Robin Sloan||6736543] recently.

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Review: Engraved on the Eye

Engraved on the Eye
Engraved on the Eye by Saladin Ahmed

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The widely praised [b:Throne of the Crescent Moon|11487807|Throne of the Crescent Moon (The Crescent Moon Kingdoms, #1)|Saladin Ahmed||14520797] isn't available as an ebook (at least, not in my region), so I thought I'd sample this short story collection instead. The first story is about the meeting of the two main characters in Throne, and I liked it enough that I'll be looking for the novel (probably at the library, since the publishers don't seem to want my money). In fact, I can see what the critical fuss is about: Ahmed writes smoothly and well, has interesting protagonists, and makes their choices matter.

Early on in the collection, it looked as if all the protagonists were going to be young Muslims struggling with faith and ethical choices as well as with life, but later in the book we got a couple of stories where this wasn't the case (and another where it was). In all but the last story, though, a well-told sword-and-sorcery tale with an unusual ending (for sword-and-sorcery), the main character was either Muslim, a member of an ethnic minority, or both. "Write what you know" is good writing advice, and Ahmed does it well, and gives me (as a non-Muslim non-minority person) a degree of insight into a life experience different from my own. This is partly what I read speculative fiction for. I recognized at least one repurposed Arabic fable, too, and the story was none the worse for its classical roots.

Another thing that most of the main characters had in common was a strong emotional connection to a lost, threatened, unattainable, geographically distant or otherwise absent beloved (or, in one case, brother). This provided the plots with plenty of fuel, but the risk of this strategy is that the beloved becomes a McGuffin instead of a character. Again, in the last story, the lost beloved at least gets to speak, though not much more. This is a feature that's in danger of becoming a bug, in my opinion. I seem to remember that it's been mentioned as a criticism of Throne of the Crescent Moon.

These stories were certainly worth the $3.99 I paid. I only hope that Saladin Ahmed is getting his share of it; I notice that the publisher is Ridan, a small publisher which became infamous last year when they suddenly stopped paying their authors.

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