Thursday, 25 April 2013

Review: Off to Be the Wizard

Off to Be the Wizard
Off to Be the Wizard by Scott Meyer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A fun book, light but not without some substance.

As you'd hope from someone who writes a humourous webcomic, it's genuinely funny, and that's mainly down to the dialogue. They're not just one-liners, though. It's the interactions between characters that are funny, so the jokes tend to run over a couple of dialogue turns. There's also a bit of absurdity here and there.

I thought the author could have made more play of the fact that one character is from the 1980s and doesn't get the Simpsons references that everyone else makes. It's a joke that's used, really, only once, though at a later point he does get a pop-culture reference when the protagonist quotes Ghostbusters. The Rule of Three is that something you use three times is funnier.

The editing has its rough spots. There are missing words in sentences, and the odd misused word turns up. I'm fairly sure a bolt of cloth is rolled up, and so hanging it from the wall won't give the effect that the author was probably after. We get "prophesy" instead of "prophecy", "capitol" instead of "capital", "staid" instead of "stayed", "anti-chamber" and "Buenos Aries". There are a number of instances of missing opening quotation marks in the dialogue. I've seen much worse, but it does need another good go-over by a proofreader.

With the humour bonus, four stars for language.

The characters are not that deep, mostly being one instantly-recognizable caricature or another. I did like the fact that most of them have a basic and unquestioned sense of decency, and the villain is villainous in a realistic way, not an over-the-top, puppy-kicking moustache twirler. The protagonist progresses from a somewhat selfish bumbler to something approximating a hero. All in all, four stars (perhaps a touch below four, but I'll round up).

The plot falls into several parts. In the early part of the book, the protagonist bumbles around, gets himself into trouble, and has to somehow get out of it, which makes for fast-moving hijinks. Then there's a longish stretch where he learns about what he can now do, kind of an extended training montage, and about halfway through the book we get the main challenge. The rest of the book involves dealing with that challenge. It's a slightly unusual way to structure a plot, but I think, overall, it works. Three and a half, maybe four stars. Even the training montage bit is interesting enough that I didn't grow bored with it, despite the whiff of idiot lecture.

Setting I wasn't so happy with. The basic premise is that the protagonist, along with a number of other people over the years, has discovered that the world is a computer simulation by hacking into the file that describes everyone, including him. This means that he effectively gains magic powers. Based on a superficial search for a good time to live in, he heads back to medieval England.

The thing is, medieval England is very much a Ren-Faire version, not even slightly authentic. Even people's names are mostly Irish and Scottish rather than English. There's a handwavey attempt to account for the lack of authenticity, but it's really not convincing, and leaves me with the conclusion that the author didn't really care about actual medieval England or want to do any research; he just wanted to use the idea of medieval England. There may be a debt to the Connecticut Yankee, as well.

Only three stars for setting, and I'm being a bit generous, because it's tissue-paper thin and torn in a number of places. Overall, though, a four-star book, which had me laughing out loud a number of times.

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Saturday, 20 April 2013

Review: Draykon

Draykon by Charlotte E. English

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Firstly, this is long. The paperback edition, according to the Amazon page, is 402 pages, much longer than most novels I read these days. It's not just your standard epic fantasy doorstop, though, nor does it get bogged down in pages of description. In fact, I could have done with a little more description from time to time.

Let's take language first. It's mostly very literate, with odd exceptions. I struck two dangling participles very early on: "Wrought from silver, her favourite metal, she had lightly engraved it..." (which, taken literally, says that she was wrought from silver), and "Shy even then, the bustling market had unnerved her". There's also an instance where something belonging to a couple with the surname Wrobsley is described as "the Wrobsley's" instead of, as it should be, "the Wrobsleys'". There are several cases where the author uses "may" when the rest of the sentence is in the past tense and the word should be "might". The nonexistent word "alright" turns up once, and there are about five cases where a question is missing its question mark. There are passive constructions like "she was given a room", "she was waited upon", and the owners of an inn are referred to as its "patrons", which usually means customers. I won't carp at "not unjustified", though it's often frowned upon as poor usage.

That sounds like a lot, but really, over 402 pages, it isn't. For the most part, the language is smooth and competent. Three and a half stars.

The characters are memorable enough that the invented fantasy names mostly don't become an impediment to remembering who is who. They're not cliches, they have personal stakes in the outcomes, and they take action towards clear goals. I did have a bit of a problem with Llandry, one of the two viewpoint characters. She is a very anxious young woman who nevertheless is always leaving safety and getting herself in trouble, with bad results, often to other people as well as herself. She does this over and over again. I very much do not like characters like this. On the other hand, the other viewpoint character, Eva, is a strong, capable woman, though her lack of emotion in most circumstances and apparent cluelessness about relationships makes her read a little like a gender-swapped man. I prefer strong female characters to be emotionally intelligent as well as determined and competent. I also didn't see much of an arc in the characters. On the inside, at least, they're much the same at the end of the book as they were at the beginning. Overall, three stars for characters.

As far as plot goes, as you'd expect in such a long book, there's quite a bit of it. It's a mystery, not a quest, which is nice to see in an epic fantasy. The characters, particularly Eva, make steady progress in solving the mystery (important if a plot is to hold my attention), and there's a good balance of tidying up the events of the first book with setting up more questions for the second. It's competently done, and the two geographically-separated strands weave together and cross frequently enough that you don't feel you're reading two separate stories. At least three and a half stars for plot, getting close to four.

Now, setting. I had some issues with the setting.

I need to mention something about the world in order to give background. There are three connected levels, known as the Lowers, the Middles and the Uppers. The Lowers are perpetually moonlit night, the Uppers perpetually sunlit day. Parts of the Middles have been magically set up to connect to one or the other by either cloaking them in permanent night or giving them permanent day, so that animals and plants from the Lowers or Uppers respectively can thrive.

Leaving aside the biological unlikeliness, there are some consistency problems in how these lands are described. After a group of people is said to have "worked past moonset and well beyond", one of their members returns to her home, and it's "nearly moonset". Later, "under the deep cover of Orstwych’s Cloaked hours" (i.e. when the moon is not up), the moonlight shines off buildings. One of the permanent-day lands is described as experiencing sunrise and sunset, and later a native of that land is thrilled to be in another land (outside the magical cloaks) "where the sun rose and set". The glossary notes at the back make it clear that the sun does rise and set in the daylands, so this seems odd.

I was never convinced that this elaborate setup was really necessary (or believable). Then there are the animals and plants themselves. I can see the reason for having new names for the ones that are not like anything in our world, though it does make the book harder to follow, but if you have a large, intelligent, scaly, winged being that breathes fire, why call it a "draykon" rather than a dragon? Perhaps there's some reason, but it's not visible in this first book, and it seems like a difference that makes no difference.

The setting reminds me a little of some of the setups you see in some Dungeons and Dragons material, which seem to be designed on the basis of coolness rather than practicality. The problem is not only that they're impractical, but that they end up not being treated fully consistently with all the implications worked out, and that they get in the way of the plot more than they generate it. I'm not really a fan. Three stars.

Overall, this is a three-star book for me. It's a high three stars, and with some language fixes, more character change and the logistical inconsistencies fixed up, it would edge up to four, even though I don't love the setting.

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Sunday, 14 April 2013

Review: All the Paths of Shadow

All the Paths of Shadow
All the Paths of Shadow by Frank Tuttle

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoyed this very much, despite some flaws. In particular, I enjoyed seeing a truly competent female protagonist and characters who trusted each other.

There are a few editing issues, but only a few. Breech instead of breach, Bellringer's instead of Bellringers', passed instead of past, boogie instead of bogey, sherbert as a misspelling of sherbet, whickers instead of whiskers, millenia used as the singular, and belied used to mean betrayed were the ones I caught, plus a couple of cases where a space was missing between two words. These are minor, and some are simply typos. I did notice that the open and closed quotation marks aren't always correct, which makes the occasional missed dialogue tag even more confusing, but in general, the language is smooth and even, and there are some lovely expressions and phrasings in the dialogue. Four stars for language.

The characters delighted me, especially, as I've mentioned, the intelligent, competent young female protagonist, who didn't need to be rescued by a man even once. She was firmly in control of the situation most of the time, and even when she wasn't, she managed to fake it so convincingly that her opponents backed down. The crusty old wizards were also a lot of fun, as was the wisecracking plant-familiar with the 29 eyes.

I liked the fact that people trusted each other. So often a story relies on people not trusting each other when they obviously should.

The character I did have a problem with was the king. When he's offstage, he's generally an annoying idiot, but when he's onstage he seems like a sensible and pleasant man. I couldn't reconcile what I was told about him with what I was shown about him. This means only four stars for characters.

The plot ran smoothly enough, with plenty of challenges for the protagonist to overcome. The trouble here was that she generally overcame them with magic that didn't follow Sanderson's First Law, which I paraphrase as follows: if solving a problem with magic is to be fully satisfying to the reader, the reader needs to understand the magic in advance of when it's used to solve the problem, so that it doesn't come across as a deus ex machina. This means only four stars for plot.

Which brings me to the setting. The collection of wondrous magical devices was entertaining, but it did play out in plot terms a bit like Batman's utility belt, as I've just mentioned. Any problem could be solved either by one of the devices or by the protagonist's enormous magical ability. In a poorly written book, this would have been fatal, but here it wasn't, it just reduced the cleverness of the solutions we were shown by replacing it with cleverness we were told about.

The other, more important problem with the setting was that the cultures were mostly simply lifted whole from Earth cultures, without even the serial numbers filed off. The Hang are Chinese with chopsticks and spring rolls, one of the allied nations is Scottish with kilts and tartans, another one seems to be Irish with alcoholism, blarney and peat. I like to see authors work harder at worldbuilding than this. A related problem is that the Realms in which the story is set have a sophisticated steampunk-style (that is, 19th-century-European) civilization, while we're told at one and the same time that they are on a relatively tiny, very isolated landmass that's out of touch with the rest of the world. Those two things don't go together. Three stars for setting, barely rescued from two by the delightful gadgets.

In summary, then, what I was told and what I was shown didn't always match up, but I'm giving it four stars overall anyway because it contained so many things I enjoy: a genuinely strong female protagonist, fun gadgets, good dialogue and steampunk that isn't over-the-top.

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Thursday, 11 April 2013

Review: Saving Mars

Saving Mars
Saving Mars by Cidney Swanson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I picked this up after Nathan Lowell recommended the sequel. I take Nathan's recommendations seriously, since I discovered Debora Geary, one of my favourite authors, through him, so I started out predisposed to like this a lot.

I did enjoy it, too, despite massive setting issues. More on that in a moment.

The writing is smooth and competent, with only occasional errors: capitol instead of capital, physician's when it should be physicians', discretely instead of discreetly, enormity used to mean largeness instead of dreadfulness. Not too bad. Four stars.

The plot is full of incident, with high stakes, suspense and drama. Unfortunately, the setup for the plot to be high-stakes, suspenseful and dramatic broke my suspension of disbelief and then danced on the pieces. (Again, more of that shortly.) Four stars for plot.

The characters were diverse, though I didn't think they achieved a lot of depth or departed far from their archetypes. We have the wise mentor, the stick-up-the-butt ambitious captain, the rash youth, the idealistic youth, the villiany villainous villain who is far too villainous (shooting minions, really?), the great and beloved leader. The only character who struck me as really original was the protagonist's brother, who's somewhere on the autism spectrum, and even then, he falls into the autistic-savant stereotype. I'm only giving three stars for characters. They weren't great, but at least they weren't annoying, and they took action based on clear goals that meant something to them. On reflection, probably three and a half.

Now, the setting. The author says in a note at the end, "I’ve done my best to keep the (meager) science in SAVING MARS at least somewhat accurate, but there are many points where I felt free to get quite speculative, and I’m sure there are numerous out-and-out errors as well." Well, yes. There are numerous out-and-out errors. In fact, I struggle to think of a single thing about the setting that I found remotely plausible. Not the astrophysics, though in space opera that generally gets a pass, but also not the politics, the economics, the sociology, the neuroscience, the medical science, the agricultural science (or extremely dubious lack thereof), the nutritional science, the way the people of Mars store their food in a high-oxygen environment when that is not what you do with anything that's remotely perishable, the logistics, the communications technology, the computer science, the pilot training that leaves out the ability to operate some of the communications devices for no apparent plot-relevant reason, or the nicknames "Lobster" and "Kipper" used by people who know nothing of seafood.

I could nitpick at the setting all day, but I'll confine myself to the two most prominent things, on which so much of the plot hinges.

The characters have to get off Mars for two reasons. Firstly, they can't grow their own food because of toxins in the soil, so they have to go to Earth every 17 years and get enough ration bars to last the entire population for the next 17 years. The population is more than 4000 (since that's mentioned as the number of people who have toured a facility early in the book), which at two ration bars per person per day for 17 years adds up to a huge number (and mass) of ration bars. The obvious question is, if they can somehow, inexplicably, lift that much mass off Earth, why don't they bring back some non-toxic soil to grow things in? Leaving aside the highly dubious idea that they wouldn't be able to find some other way around it. Leaving aside the highly dubious idea that the problem even existed in the first place. (No non-toxic soil on an entire planet?)

They also need to go to Earth to try and hack the killer satellites that are supposed to keep them on Mars in the first place. I'm no hacker, but I would have thought that if you could hack them from Earth you could hack them from Mars. Maybe not, though. I'll let that one pass, with a dubious look.

So we have a highly contrived reason that the characters need to go to Earth. They've had a war with Earth, and Earth thinks they're all dead by now anyway. One of the reasons they haven't restored contact with Earth is that Earth has a system of compulsory body-switching which, supposedly, has stabilized their society and their resource usage. People get 18 years in the body they were born in, then switch into a 54-year-old body to learn their trade. At 72 they switch to a 36-year-old body and work for 18 years, and then get to switch again into an 18-year-old body for their retirement, after which they die (having lived 72 years in total).

To me, this makes no sociological, psychological or economic sense, quite apart from the neuroscience being completely handwaved. At what time are children born? How are they born? If they're born naturally, from bodies that are in their prime childbearing years, everyone would be the children of retirees and lose their parents before the age of 18. Since this apparently isn't the case, is it all done with artificial wombs? How is this making more efficient use of resources?

I didn't buy the body-swapping at all, any more than the need to mount a clandestine mission to Earth, dodging killer satellites, every 17 years and bring back a huge cargo of nothing but ration bars in exchange for refined tellurium (which is poisonous to handle, incidentally, and you wouldn't carry round a bar of it in your bag).

No, sorry, it's one star for setting. I can forgive a few bits of dodgy science, but nothing about this setting makes sense to me. Most of the setting elements, in fact, are arguably out-and-out wrong.

That makes 12-and-maybe-a-half stars out of a possible 20, or just over two out of five. I'm going to be extra-generous (because I did enjoy the story, blatantly rigged though it was) and round up to three stars. I don't think I'll be reading the sequel, though, because all that bad worldbuilding is just too much work.

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Saturday, 6 April 2013

Review: The Between

The Between
The Between by L.J. Cohen

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Upfront disclosure: I know Lisa Cohen on Google+. We've beta-read for each other and we're mutual fans. She offered me a free copy of the book and asked me to read it, not necessarily for review, but because she wanted my thoughts on it.

First, the language. I know she's worked hard on the editing, but there are still a few issues. She refers to the "girl's bathroom" when she means "girls' bathroom" (more than one girl uses it), there are half a dozen sentences with missing words or slightly odd word choices, as if they've been incompletely revised, a couple of other grammar issues and a homonym error ("pendent" for "pendant"). In the realm of things, that's not too bad.

Otherwise, the language is functional, but doesn't rise to beautiful or extraordinarily evocative. That's a valid stylistic choice, by the way, and is well-suited to the point-of-view character, a seemingly ordinary American teenage girl. A very high three stars for language, four if those editing glitches were fixed, which I'm sure they soon will be.

The plot kept me guessing. I didn't know where she was going with it, and in fact it ended up with a resolution that was very different from what I'd expected (and not what the protagonist was originally going after, either, which felt a little unsatisfying to me). Like the protagonist herself, it reminded me very much of Lisa's other novel, Derelict, which I've beta-read in an early draft: an angry, rebellious young woman struggling against odds that are way beyond her and being frustrated at pretty much every turn. I think this may have something to do with why I didn't always feel pulled along by the story. I don't get a sense of progress towards the protagonist's goal. I was trying to put my finger on why I set both stories aside at times to read other things, and I think that's it. For me (and not necessarily for every reader), a sense of progress towards the protagonist's goal is important. So plot gets three stars: competently handled, with no obvious holes or absurdities, but for me at least not as emotionally satisfying as it might have been.

One other thing to say about plot, actually: I know that Lisa deliberately steered away from having romance as a plot focus, and for that I applaud her. I know that who is with whom is a preoccupation of young adults, but that's not the only interesting story you can tell in YA, and good on Lisa for standing firm on that and telling another one of those interesting stories.

Now, character. There are two viewpoint characters, Lydia and Clive, and they're distinct in their voices, viewpoints and motivations. Both of them are well-drawn and believable, and the minor characters are also distinct. The relationships between them are varied, they shift sometimes, and all the shifts are believable too. This is an author who knows what she's doing as far as character is concerned. Four and a half stars, easily.

Finally, the setting. Other reviewers have commented that in The Between, some of the most tired tropes of the Fae are given fresh life, and it's true. Titania and Oberon are everything scary and dangerous you ever heard about the Fae, but seen from Lydia's viewpoint they are also petty, selfish tyrants. They remind me of Third World dictators, in fact. The Fae court is beautiful and strange, but also faded and dependent on glamour. Here is an author who's gone back to the primary sources, rather than just building on more recent interpretations of the Fae, and it shows. The idea of being able to draw magic from love and memories and connections to other people, foreign to the Fae, is an inspired touch of originality, too. A clear four stars for setting: while it's built on a lot of prior art, the author does interesting new things with it nevertheless.

Overall, four stars, and the lost star is mostly because for my personal taste the plot wasn't as satisfying as it might have been. This is a very fine YA novel, and I look forward to more from L.J. Cohen.

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Review: Untimed

Untimed by Andy Gavin

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The next time some snob who hasn't been paying attention for the past couple of years tells you that all self-published books are crap, point them to this one.

As I'm reading on my Kindle, I routinely highlight passages or words where the author, and their editor, if any, has screwed up - left a word out of a sentence, used the wrong word for what they mean, mispunctuated or misspelled something. I have no highlights in this book. Zero. The author thanks a large number of people in his acknowledgements, and I think it's a case of "with many eyes, all bugs are shallow". He's put in the work to produce a professional book.

I enjoy a well-written time-travel story, one in which the plot is carefully crafted and the threads all weave together, and that is what this is. It's also thrilling. There's always something happening, the stakes are both high in global significance and also personal for the main character, and the action is well-described.

The characters, especially the main character, are believable. It's in first person, and I totally believe Charlie as a teenager. He does things that he's not completely proud of, but they're the things a teenager would do. He's not ridiculously superpowered or over-competent, either. He has the knowledge a bright teenager who's been well-prepared by a time-travelling father would have.

I found the other characters a touch one-dimensional, I have to say, including the love interest. Then again, that's not incompatible with the viewpoint of a bright teenager, to whom everyone else is not quite as real as he is.

The setting I found a little over-convenient. The universal translator and the way in which clothing changes to match the era that the traveller ends up in, for example. I can see why the author made those choices (it removes some fairly tedious practical issues and leaves more space for the exciting ones), but I hope it's well-justified in a sequel. That's really my main criticism. As far as other aspects of the setting go, the past is convincingly smelly and violent, and the whole world has an authentic feel. It's not a cinema sound-stage, it's shot on location.

The five stars is rounded up from about 4.7 or so, and is based on 5 stars being the best conceivable YA time-travel story. I've read better books, but not very many of them.

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