Monday, 30 December 2013

Review: Under the Skin

Under the Skin
Under the Skin by E.E. Richardson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Fluently and competently written, but darker than I usually go for, and with that weary British sense of hopelessness against the system. That doesn't, fortunately, stop the protagonist from doing the right thing despite considerable cost and opposition, which is largely why it got a fourth star from me.

It's shorter than I expected, and finishes abruptly with several things unresolved and on a worrying note. I can see why the author left it that way, though, since tying everything up neatly would have been difficult to pull off believably and also anticlimactic.

Because it's darker than my usual taste, I probably won't look for other books by this author, but if that doesn't bother you, it's well-written and I recommend it.

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Thursday, 26 December 2013

Review: The Sorcerer's Daughter

The Sorcerer's Daughter
The Sorcerer's Daughter by Larry Kollar

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A brisk and fun continuation of the Accidental Sorcerers series. In the previous volume, Mik, the boy of the teenage pair of apprentice sorcerers, went off on a solo adventure, and in this one it's the turn of Sura, the girl. There's some good setup at the start to show how they learn the magic that they'll need, and to reinforce the closeness of their bond, which is also significant.

Although the story is quite short, it's complete and satisfying, something I don't often say about shorter works. I think it's because of the good setup followed by a clear, strong arc for the main character.

The final revelation about Sura's parentage did seem to me to contradict something stated earlier in the series, and indeed an earlier scene in this story, but it was the right answer in an emotional sense, so I give it a pass, just.

I'm glad the series will be continuing, and look forward to the next volume.

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Review: Water and Chaos

Water and Chaos
Water and Chaos by Larry Kollar

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It's a relief to have a well-edited indie book that isn't constantly distracting me from the story because the author doesn't know where to put the apostrophes, and it's also a pleasure to have a good story, likeable and believable characters and a well-thought-out world.

In this second volume of the Accidental Sorcerers series, teenage apprentice sorcerers Mik and Sura have a romantic misunderstanding that, for me, skirted but didn't cross the line of being unbelievable. I think the key word in that last sentence is "teenage".

Mik is everything I like in a main character: loyal, honest, brave, resourceful and talented. Cheering for him is easy.

I did wonder how the economics worked of one person working for a few days being able to feed an entire school for, presumably, a similar period, but other than that I thought the worldbuilding was well done and plausible.

I already have the sequel on my Kindle and will be reading it forthwith.

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Movie Review: The Hobbit 2, Desolation of Smaug

I go to the movies very seldom. In fact, the last time was when I saw the first Hobbit movie (three-star review here). I'm unlikely to go for the third movie in the trilogy.

I had heard mixed reviews of Desolation of Smaug, and I tried to go in with low expectations to enjoy it as what it is: not as an adaptation of a beloved book but as a Hollywood blockbuster, with all that implies. I surprised myself by liking most of the story additions, even the love triangle with the OC Tauriel. (Let's face it, these movies are high-budget fanfiction.) What I didn't like was what I didn't like the first time: the de-rogueification of Bilbo and the utterly absurd action sequences. In both cases, this movie had more of them than the first one did, so there was more for me to dislike.

Bilbo first. Bilbo is one of the sources of the D&D "rogue" or "thief" character class, along with the Grey Mouser and a few others. Although he's still referred to as a "burglar" here, everything that makes him a rogue or trickster has been taken away from him. He didn't get the trolls arguing with each other in the first movie, and in this one he doesn't fool the spiders, he just fights them. He doesn't hang out in the elvish stronghold thieving and learning his way around, he just happens across the opportunity to get the dwarves out. The wine barrels are retained, though he doesn't pack the dwarves in them (so that there can be gratuitous and rather dull action sequences, of which more later). His bantering with Smaug isn't the (over)confident cleverness of a proven trickster - because all opportunity for him to become one has been removed; he hasn't gained any XP in Rogue. It's the desperate improvisation of a trapped incompetent who's out of his depth.

I neither know nor care whether Hollywood thickheads nixed the tricksterism on some vague moral grounds. All I know is that the essence of Bilbo's character has been lost.

So, to the action sequences. Here's a piece of advice Peter Jackson needs to heed. "Don't write action sequences. Write suspense sequences that require action to resolve."
There's no suspense about whether the dwarves will be killed by the orcs, or whether Legolas will be (since it's a prequel to movies in which Legolas is very much alive). There's nothing else at stake in the action sequences apart from who wins, and since we know that going in, they're boring. And they go on far too long. As a friend of mine commented, they would, ironically, be more exciting if they were shorter. 

Not only that, but they're cartoonish and utterly, completely ridiculous. I compared the falling-platform-in-the-goblin-mines sequence in the first film to Michael Bay. The action sequences in this film make Michael Bay look like a sophisticated and nuanced filmmaker with a deep reverence for the laws of physics and human(oid) biology. When the youngest child in the theatre laughs out loud at how absurd a piece of action is, you've obviously missed your mark. 

Legolas the superhero surfing down the stairs on the shield, swinging himself one-handed onto the horse or swarming up the mumakil were among the scenes I liked least in the original LOTR trilogy. Here, we see mainly Legolas, but also Thorin, performing the same kind of absurd feats. We see a great deal of fire (and even molten metal) that isn't, apparently, hot, based on its lack of effect on the dwarves. We see lots of action, but speaking for myself, I felt no tension whatsoever throughout the entire movie. The characters have character armour a foot thick, and timing that you'd never dare require in a video game because it would be unplayable. 
I said of the first film that it was a long three-star movie with a much shorter four-star movie trapped inside it. This one is a long two-star movie with a much shorter three-star movie well-hidden underneath all of the nonsensical action.

Saturday, 21 December 2013

Review: The Scent of Metal

The Scent of Metal
The Scent of Metal by Sabrina Chase

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the second book I've read by Sabrina Chase, and from this admittedly small sample it seems that she likes to do fresh things with genre. I'm all in favour of that.

Her book [b:The Last Mage Guardian|13123884|The Last Mage Guardian|Sabrina Chase||18299611] wasn't your typical fantasy, or even your typical steampunk fantasy, either in its trappings or in its storyline. It had a strong (in the sense of competent and talented, not violent) female protagonist, and a romance subplot which was an extra layer, not an intrusion on the main plot. Substitute "space opera" for "fantasy" and "hard-ish" for "steampunk" in what I've just said, and you have a good description of The Scent of Metal.

I call it a hard-ish space opera because it has some of the themes more typical of hard SF (like first contact and AI), but it doesn't make you drink from the science hose. The setting is a background for the characters' struggles, rather than the characters being there to explain the setting to each other and wonder at its cleverness. In fact, the key speculative element - the protagonist's ability to communicate with the alien machines - is never explained at all. The ending sets us up for sequels, so this may well be remedied. Myself, I didn't mind that it wasn't all wrapped up with a bow around it at the end.

The book opens with a clear problem: Researchers on an alien spaceship (disguised as Pluto) somehow activate the ship and it takes them out of the solar system. They have limited supplies, so they have to find a way to make it take them home again quickly. This is a strong story problem, and it sustains a mystery-style plot in which the protagonist and her competent sidekicks face credible obstacles and progressively overcome them, largely through intelligence. I am very happy with this kind of plot, though the never-explained power of the protagonist did seem a touch convenient once or twice.

The characters have flaws and baggage from the past, and it's relevant to how they behave. I liked them and wanted them to win. Can't ask much more than that.

The language does a competent job of getting us from place to place, and I found only one significant error (which is outstanding, especially for an indie book): a missing apostrophe from the phrase "arm's reach".

I reserve five stars for books that blow me away completely with their depth and literary quality, and this didn't quite reach that level. It's a very strong four stars, though, a good piece of entertainment excellently done.

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Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Review: Peacemaker

Peacemaker by K.A. Stewart

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A well-done bit of Weird West with a likeable protagonist.

This is America (Kansas, to be exact) in a world in which most people have magic, arcane-powered transports replace the horses they're modeled on, and Native American magic is strong enough that the USA stops at the Rockies. The eponymous Peacemaker (think US Marshal) brings his magic, his staff and his familiar (a cute jackalope named Ernst) to the town of Hope, where he has to deal with a Bad Wealthy Rancher.

I give that last phrase capitals because he's a trope, one of a number of tropish characters. The friendly saloonkeeper (who's Scottish), the helpful general store owner, the grumpy blacksmith (who's Swedish), the schoolmarm, the kid who's running a bit wild but has potential, the mysterious old Indian shaman. They do come through as individuals, though, not just chess pieces or cardboard cutouts (and, after all, there are a limited number of roles you can have in a Western).

The protagonist is the Wounded Veteran, something he struggles with through the course of the book, though it helps rather than hinders him when the chips are down. He fought for the Union in the Civil War and lost a chunk of his power, as well as gaining a nasty scar. He seems to have plenty of power left, though.

Although it doesn't break new ground particularly, this story puts a fun spin on some beloved tropes, and is told fluently and engagingly. It's well-edited; I found only six minor typos, which, if you follow my reviews, you'll know is a small number (I often get into double figures even with traditionally-published books). At the end is an excerpt from another series, an urban fantasy which I'll probably track down.

All in all, a good bit of entertainment.

(I received an advance reader copy through Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.)

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Monday, 9 December 2013

Review: As the Crow Flies

As the Crow Flies
As the Crow Flies by Robin Lythgoe

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I do love a good rogue, and this book offers one. Though let down a little by editing issues and a lot by the female characters, overall it was enjoyable and well-written if I overlooked those factors.

Editing issues first. It's written in a literate, intelligent style, which makes the problems that much more vexing. There are only a few, but they are pervasive.

Firstly, apostrophe placement in phrases like "servants' entrance" and "merchants' quarter". I've just given the correct placements (since the entrance is used by more than one servant, and there is more than one merchant in the quarter), but the author writes "servant's entrance" and "merchant's quarter". Other examples: bandit's horses, peoples' stomachs (an overcorrection; "people" is what the stomachs belonged to, so it should be "people's"), guard's sashes, brother's knives, owner's food stocks, Ancestor's magic, visitor's menials, neighbor's houses. In all those cases, the noun was plural and so the apostrophe should be after the s. The apostrophe is also missed out of "four months' travel" (you wouldn't say "one month travel" but "one month's travel").

Then there's the almost completely consistent use of "affect" where it should be "effect" (both the verb and noun versions). There's also "poured" for "pored" in one place. "Laying" for "lying" may just be part of the voice of the first-person narrator, though I suspect it's another error by the author.

A number of sentences also change grammatical direction or tense partway through, there are missing minor words like "of" occasionally, and there are several dangling participles ("A professional dancer, I had first set eyes on Tarsha..." - where Tarsha, not the speaker, is the dancer).

It's not like there's an error on every page. I marked about 40 (some of them the same ones repeated), and this is a long book. With very rare exceptions, commas are in the right place, too. But there are enough errors that I found them annoying and distracting from the story.

The story itself is a classic piece of sword-and-sorcery, in which a rogue, accompanied reluctantly by a fighter, goes on a quest to steal an object desired by a wizard. There's the old "I've poisoned you and you have to come back to me for the antidote" trope. The hero collects an accidental, troubling, but highly useful superpower seemingly at random in the course of the adventure.

Does it rise above the tropes? It does, though not all that high at times, and there are a couple of tropes that troubled me more, the ones around the female characters. We have three: The selfish and mercenary seducer/whore/betrayer; the Woman in a Refrigerator, who exists only as a male character's motivation; and the mute (the male protagonist observes that at least she doesn't chatter like other women) who is always crying, devoted to the protagonist for no obvious reason, and annoyingly dependent, though she is surprisingly, and indeed unexplainedly, competent with a crossbow at a couple of moments when that's useful. I'm aware that the author is herself a woman, but these are not promising female characters, to me. In fact, they're a worry. This lost an otherwise enjoyable book its fourth star from me.

The protagonist/narrator is a rogue, and so we expect him not to necessarily be a nice guy (though he tries not to kill people if he can help it). His desire not to become emotionally entangled is understandable, and he protests too much of not caring, so we suspect that he cares more than he lets on... though sometimes it does actually seem like he doesn't care, that the act isn't an act, and at those moments he isn't a very likeable character and I, in turn, don't care quite as much what happens to him.

What does happen to him involves a lot of pain and suffering, as is, again, usual for this type of character in this type of book. When that happens to Locke Lamora, or even Eli Monpress, it means something. Here, it's just another trope.

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