Sunday, 31 March 2013

Review: The Walls of the Universe

The Walls of the Universe
The Walls of the Universe by Paul Melko

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Something out of the ordinary, in a good way.

Farmboy John Rayburn's other self from a different alternate universe tricks him into using the universe jumper he has, without explaining that it only works in one direction and he won't be able to get back. He then hijacks John's life.

What happens next, though, is that both Johns grow and develop in their different settings. Johnny Farmboy becomes tougher and smarter, and John Prime, the hijacker, becomes a halfway decent person. Both end up with different versions of the same girl.

I liked those characterisation choices and how the author played them out. As usual, we have to suspend our disbelief a little when the late-teenage characters achieve things that should be beyond them, but the writing is smooth enough that it wasn't too much of a strain.

I did spot one inconsistency: Johnny Farmboy, who is going under the name Wilson, is addressed by his real name by someone who shouldn't know it. I also spotted a homonym error, but I can't remember what it was now. Otherwise, the editing is impeccable and the writing competent. There's a nice setup at the end for the sequel, which raises the stakes and opens up the possibilities (and ensures that both Johns will continue to be involved in cross-universe adventures). Probably should have put some kind of a lock on that thing, John.

I'll look forward to that sequel.

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Thursday, 28 March 2013

Review: Athame

Athame by Morgan Alreth

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I really enjoyed this. The original story and likeable characters more than made up for some editing issues and a derivative setting.

There are some lovely bits of writing that made me smile, or even chuckle. "Breakfast consisted of looking at last night's rabbit bones and wistfully licking their lips", for example. Unfortunately, there are also typos, missing words, errors like your/you're, it's/its, other missing or misplaced apostrophes, occasional incorrect tense, and the word "inn" consistently and unnecessarily capitalized. Compound adjectives are sometimes, but not always, hyphenated, and there isn't always a comma before the name of someone who's being addressed. Compared with many other indie books I've read, this isn't bad. The author doesn't use fancy words that don't mean what he thinks they mean, and a couple of passes by a reasonably competent proofreader would sort out the issues easily. The sentences mostly flow well, and the descriptions are workmanlike. I'll award three stars for language, given the general competence of the writing.

I liked the characters immediately. Pete is good-hearted and willing to try anything and persevere. Jess cares deeply about doing the right thing and is tough and competent. None of the other characters develop, but they're distinct and well-drawn. The main characters are also proactive, setting out to do things rather than just watching things happen. A strong four stars for characters.

The plot isn't, thankfully, one of the usual three epic fantasy plots. It's original, not predictable, and (to me, anyway) engaging, largely because I cared about the main characters. It doesn't rely on character stupidity or coincidence, either. It's not a complex plot, but it's well-handled. Four stars for plot.

The setting is not so original. Apart from the ghaunts, all the creatures were standard issue, and the kingdom was your basic fantasy kingdom: king, nobles, peasants, medieval technology, priests of several gods, magic. The magic, too, was the rather worn four elements type, though I liked what the author did with it. I also liked the fact that the nobles were a bit more like actual medieval nobles (that is, nasty bastards) than is often the case in high fantasy. A highish three stars for setting.

Overall, a definite four stars, and I will be buying the sequel.

Through The Kindle Book Review, I received a free copy of this
book for an independent, fair, and honest review. KBR are not
associated with the author or Amazon.

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Monday, 25 March 2013

Review: A Matter of Circumstance and Celludrones

A Matter of Circumstance and Celludrones
A Matter of Circumstance and Celludrones by Claire Robyns

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

One would assume that people would have had a suffiency of foolish romances. But, looking around one, one perceives that this is not, in fact, the case.

If only this book had been written like the above sentences, I might have forgiven the silly romance and the way in which it got in the way of the adventure. Sadly, the writing was less than competent. I only got 42% of the way through, and noted the following: "she slipped passed" (instead of past), "I'll never get my full" (instead of fill), "Browning's" as the plural, "peddling" (repeatedly) when it should be "pedaling", the names of types of tree and types of carriage unnecessarily capitalized, "the room her and McAllister were ensconced in" (should be "she and McAllister), "a la Lily style", "diffuse" for "defuse" and "the inter-leading door". There are multiple references to "risque sports", which appears to mean "extreme sports", but "risque" usually has a sexual implication that is apparently not intended here.

The setting is 19th-century Britain, but the language is modern American. "How come?" "Are you okay?" "Get the hell away" "It will come find you" "Who all knows?" Oddly, given that Americans don't use the metric system any more than the 19th-century British did, the measure of an area of land is given in hectares.

The very prim and proper mid-Victorian heroine not only says "get the hell away" but "damn and blast". And even when the language isn't actually wrong (either for the time or the character, or for anyone at any time), it's bland and clumsy. "Lily would've had to admit defeat before her new philosophy on embracing life-defying acts had taken its first step forward." Three cliches (one of them garbled) and a mixed metaphor in a single sentence.

It's hard to find good steampunk, and I'm afraid that if you care much about language, know much about history, or don't like your adventure plot obscured by romancebabble of the "oh, his muscles are so hard. But I mustn't think that! I'm really not attracted to him!" kind, you won't find it here. At least, I didn't.

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Friday, 22 March 2013

Review: The Long Earth

The Long Earth
The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I suspect that there's much more Baxter than Pratchett in this book. I stopped reading Stephen Baxter (and in fact hard SF in general) years ago, because of exactly the hard SF flaws that infest this book: characters that exist almost solely so they can give you idiot lectures, other characters that exist largely to be mobile cameras for the tourist documentary about the setting, and hardly a protagonist in sight.

There are some characters with great potential. The leftist nuns, who we mostly see in Joshua's memory, not onstage. The homesteaders who are inexplicably going a huge distance away, much further than they need to, and who are inexplicably broadcasting from a private journal on shortwave just as the main observer passes through, and who are inexplicably, in that journal, saying things for their small community to hear that you wouldn't want your close neighbours to hear. And who then break into an idiot lecture. They could have been so much more.

The whole book could have been so much more. But it spent so much time exploring ideas that it never quite got around to having much of a plot, and the characters were mainly there to observe, not to want things, not to act, not to strive towards a goal or overcome challenges (other than technical challenges). Almost the only character who seemed to be taking any determined action towards a goal was the straw-man ignorant, bigoted politician.

I also didn't buy the idea that multiple children, on the same day that the design for a "stepper" was published on the Internet, would go out and buy electronic parts and build one, not knowing what it did, not having built electronics before, not caught up in any existing popular movement or viral idea. There are some kids who would do that, but they're not the kind of kids that were depicted.

And I kept waiting for Joshua's life rule of following the instructions to become more than a personality quirk, to make a difference to the plot, but there was so little plot for it to make a difference to that it never became significant.

No, this one failed to live up to its potential. It took a wonderful idea and made it, frankly, dull.

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Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Review: The Rook

The Rook
The Rook by Daniel O'Malley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This missed five stars by, as Maxwell Smart would say, this much.

The opening chapters intrigued me, not enough to pay the inflated price that the publishers wanted for the ebook, but enough to get it from the library. It was the old amnesia-victim gambit, but done really well (and, as it turns out, with much better justification than usual). It's not the Bourne Identity, though. The main character knows who she is, or at least, who her body was, because the previous inhabitant has left her a note about it.

The book keeps on being original like that. It's a bit like Charles Stross's Laundry novels, except that the British civil service in Stross is much more realistic (this one is more like James Bond; for some reason, the British Government pays their supernatural secret agents extraordinarily well, even though they don't have the option of not working for them). The humour is wry and funny, which always gets me to excuse some flaws.

And there are some flaws, though not big ones. I would have expected someone who had a master's degree in medieval history, even one from Ohio State University, to know how to refer to a knight. (Always Sir Firstname, never Sir Surname, definitely not, as in this book, a random mixture of the two.) I probably wouldn't expect such a person to know that you can't have a geosynchronous satellite stationed over Britain (because it's not on the Equator), but nevertheless this is the case. And, much more importantly, I would have expected a student of history not to write a centuries-old organization in which women appear to have always been more or less equal, as if that was natural, inevitable and not worthy of comment. That's the kind of error a bad writer usually makes, and Daniel O'Malley is a very good writer.

The editing is professional. I mention this even though it's traditionally published, because these days that isn't a guarantee. Beyond that, though, the use of language is clever and original. The voice of the main character, and her odd sense of humour, is beautifully done. I also believed her as a woman, and not every male author can write a woman's viewpoint believably. Five stars for language.

The plot is... convoluted, and there's a lot of cruft layered on it. Some of the quoted letters from the main character's former identity are not actually related to the plot, and just become annoying interruptions. It could have done with trimming down a bit. Four stars for plot.

Although the main character, both of her, comes across wonderfully, most of the other characters are a bit thin. It seems like they're only there as adjuncts to the main character and to the plot. The book is very much from the main character's viewpoint, either first person (the letters) or very tight third person, though, and since she's not emotionally close to anyone this is understandable. It still means only four stars for character.

The setting I found strained my suspension of disbelief a little. Not only the well-paid secret agents (there are hints that the organization is self-funding, so perhaps that's believable), but the suppression of the extremely high body count with the flimsiest of cover stories, and the maintenance of secrecy even though practically every senior public servant in Britain apparently knows that there are people you call when things get weird. Also, the existence, for centuries, of a hidden organization that's loyal to Britain rather than to its rulers, and that (I'll repeat) has apparently always allowed women to hold its highest offices. My rule of fantasy is that the non-fantastic elements should be as plausible as possible, and I found some things about this one not all that plausible. Four stars for setting, and lucky to have them; it was nearly three, but the humour bonus saved the fourth one, just.

Overall, I enjoyed The Rook a lot, and I will definitely look for more in the series. Maybe one of the future volumes will make it to five stars.

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Monday, 11 March 2013

Review: Frost Burned

Frost Burned
Frost Burned by Patricia Briggs

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoyed the last Patricia Briggs I read so much that I broke my "no ebook is worth more than $8" rule for this one. I'm glad I did. It's fully up to the standard of the previous entries in the series.

I like Patricia Briggs' heroines because they're protagonists. They have goals, they take action, they're intelligent and tough and determined to do the right thing. If they get rescued by men, it's not because they've done something incredibly headstrong and stupid, and they're just as likely to rescue a man as to be rescued by one. They're feisty. Anyone who tries to screw with them or theirs is in a whole heap of trouble, and they will not be bossed around.

They do often choose violence as the solution to their problems, but they can also talk and reason and make friends and allies. They're not just oddly-shaped, rather small men who think firing big guns is the way to solve everything, like some urban fantasy "heroines" I could mention.

All of these strengths are on view here. The language flows smoothly, the editing is without error (and hence doesn't distract or detract), the plot is exciting and free of gaping holes, the stakes are personal, the setting is believable.

Briggs is one of a small number of very good urban fantasy writers that I keep reading because they consistently produce quality books. The others are Carrie Vaughn, C.E. Murphy (the shaman series; not so keen on her others for some reason), Rachel Caine (the Weather Wardens; I don't like her vampire books), and Jim Butcher (the Dresden Files; not as into Codex Alera). Those five authors are the ones that, in my opinion, new urban fantasy authors should be reading closely, analyzing and setting out to emulate, particularly when it comes to protagonists. Steampunk authors could learn a thing or two, as well.

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Thursday, 7 March 2013


ABOVE HIS STATION by Darren Craske

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I can forgive a lot when a book makes me laugh. Even sending me a postapocalyptic novel to review when my reviewer profile clearly states "no postapocalyptic". It's such a silly apocalypse, though, that Darren Craske gets away with it.

(Especially given the harsh words about lawyers in the book, the lawyers for whoever owns the lyrics to "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" will probably be less forgiving. The author would be well advised to paraphrase instead of quoting.)

It's very British humour. If you don't get Monty Python, you won't get this. (There are a number of pythons in it, but oddly, none of them appears to be called Monty.) It reminds me most of Tom Holt: a hapless, loserish, very ordinary and extremely British protagonist encounters inexplicable and unbelievable events and has to cope as best he can. It's more cheerful than Tom Holt, though, the problems are caused by aliens instead of supernatural beings, and it isn't the same plot that Holt has been recycling for years. Nobody is called Jane, and the hero doesn't find an unlikely love.

The author captures the voice of an elderly British public servant of the lower middle class so well, for a while I thought he might actually be that person. The early rambling backstory goes on a little too long, rambles a little too much. Then a tiger attacks, and the story begins properly.

The book appears to lack the touch of a professional editor, but it's better than most books of which that can be said. There are apostrophe issues, straight-up typos, words used incorrectly, homophone problems ("brazier" instead of "brassiere", for example, which would be horribly uncomfortable), "inferred" used to mean "implied", "descendants" used to mean "ancestors", "astrologers" used to mean "astronomers", and "the rat and I" when it should be "the rat and me". Some of these may be the author doing the voice of the station guard, but I suspect most of them are genuine mistakes. However, there aren't a great many of them, perhaps a couple of dozen scattered through the book. I'm giving four stars for language, because the contrasting voices of the narrator and his foul-mouthed rat friend are so well done.

There's not a lot to say about the plot. There is one. It has a number of holes in it, like a 30-minute deadline that would have existed under one set of circumstances still applying under a quite different set of circumstances, and a Hobson's choice that the protagonist sticks with even when another, better option appears, but the overall silliness level is so high that a plot that makes sense would almost be out of place. I'll give plot three stars, but it's a highish three.

Likewise setting. Some key things are never explained (perhaps they will be in one of the sequels, but I'm not holding my breath), and there's no actual science in the science fiction. Again: silliness. It made me laugh, it gets a pass, though only three stars for setting.

The characters are great. Less wet than Tom Holt's, more rounded than Douglas Adams'. I'll say again, very funny. Four stars and a bit for character, so adding all of that up and rounding, a definite four-star book.

The author gave me a free copy of this book through the Kindle Book Review website in exchange for an independent, fair and honest review. I didn't receive any other inducements from the author, and have no other association with him. I believe that next time I need a laugh, I'll spend my own money on the sequel.

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Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Review: Sons of Macha

Sons of Macha
Sons of Macha by John Lenahan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I thoroughly enjoyed listening to the first two books in this series on, so as soon as I knew this was coming out I preordered it from Amazon. I was very glad I did.

If you haven't read [b:Shadowmagic|3061457|Shadowmagic (Shadowmagic, #1)|John Lenahan||3092362], you should start there, because the three books form one continuous story. This one would benefit from a bit of a "Who are these people and why are they fighting?" refresher at the start, although to the credit of the author I quickly remembered who everyone was.

As I was reading through, I was thinking that the punctuation was a little rough, and I found at least one homonym error ("recanting" where he means "recounting"). For an indie book, the editing is good. For a small-press book, average. Imagine my surprise, then, when I reached the end and found it was published by Harper-Collins.

If you imagined very much surprise, dial it back, because Harper-Collins has by far the worst editing of any major publishing house. This is at least the fifth book of theirs I've read that's made it to my "needs-editing" shelf on Goodreads. Shame, Harper-Collins, shame.

There's another language thing that has annoyed me throughout the series. John Lenahan shows signs of knowing a little Gaelic, and so he must know that "banshee" means "female fairy". Yet the banshees are one of the several tribes (along with imps, fairies, elves, brownies and so forth), and they are male and female both. It's a small niggle, but it bugs me.

I'll give this four stars for language, despite that and the poor editing, because Conor, the narrator, is consistently funny in a Spider-Man kind of smartass fashion. That gets him into exactly as much trouble as you would expect. "I know it's wrong to enjoy seeing a fellow human being suffer, but - you can't be right all of the time," he says at one point (demonstrating the ropy punctuation as well as the humour). And "If we made it out of this alive I promised myself I would buy everyone new underwear. If they were anything like me, they were going to need it."

The plot moves along well, no Chekhov's Gun remains unfired, and a lot of the time Conor wins by being smart rather than by fighting (which I always like). His woman troubles provide amusement and eventual resolution. We see triumph and tragedy, though I didn't feel strongly emotionally engaged by the tragedy for some reason (perhaps the lack of character depth I'm about to discuss). Four stars for plot, probably four and a half.

Even though I could easily remember who the characters were after a long gap, they were a little bit one-note. I didn't see a lot of depth in any of them, and there wasn't a whole lot of character change going on. There was also an inconsistency early on with Ruby's age. On one page she was described as a seven-year-old, and then a couple of pages later she was referred to as being twelve (which remained the line from then on). I suspect a late change. She certainly talks more like a seven-year-old than a twelve-year-old to my ear. Three stars for character.

Finally, setting. The Land is a wonderful setting, with original touches like the talking trees with different personalities (some of them dangerous). The two magic systems are fun, and used imaginatively. I liked the nod to Roger Zelazny's Amber in the rune ordeal. An easy four stars for setting.

Again, if you haven't read the first book, do. Better yet, get it from Podiobooks, because the author narrates it with a wonderful gusto, and you'll get to hear how the names are pronounced.

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Saturday, 2 March 2013

Review: Fair Game

Fair Game
Fair Game by Patricia Briggs

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Darker than I usually go for, but Briggs writes so well that I don't really mind. Also, she doesn't linger lovingly on torture and abuse; she alludes to it, always with the clear implication that of course this stuff is sick and wrong and whoever is doing it must be stopped. If you have a history of abuse and are easily triggered, though, you'll want to avoid this, I would imagine.

There's plenty to learn from here. The female protagonist remains a protagonist (someone who struggles towards a goal). When she gets into trouble, it's not because she's done something headstrong and stupid, and she has full, and somewhat justified, confidence that she can rescue herself. Other urban fantasy authors (also steampunk authors), please take note.

I spotted the villain fairly early on, and didn't completely buy that the FBI wouldn't have worked out what the hero worked out, but that's all right. It's well-written, free from editing issues (unlike most books I read these days), the pacing is good, the characters are proactive and the setting is well thought through. The political development right at the end is going to make future books in the series veeery interesting.

Well done, Patricia Briggs.

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