Monday, 31 March 2014

Review: Thieftaker

Thieftaker by D.B. Jackson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I heard the author of this book interviewed on a podcast (I forget which one), and it sounded interesting: an urban fantasy set in pre-revolutionary Boston. It's certainly different from the usual, and I enjoyed it, but it does suffer from an excess of research in some areas and an apparent shortage in another.

Let's play the trope-spotting game first. We have the "protagonist has magic in a society where magic is forbidden" trope. That's usually an eye-roller for me (it's Standard Fantasy Plot #3), but because it's only one element here, rather than a large slice of the premise, I give it a pass.

Actually, saying that magic is "forbidden" is a bit strong. It appears that magic is about as forbidden as, say, prostitution: it's disapproved of, respectable people don't like to talk about it, the church opposes it, and under some circumstances you will be arrested for it, since it's technically illegal (though you're unlikely to ever be burned for prostitution, and that is a possibility for "conjurers"), but most of the time people uncomfortably look the other way. This set up a situation in which the possibility of being revealed as a "witch" was a threat that kept being used against the protagonist, but it never seemed as if it was going to be a real problem. (Also, why use "conjurer" as a name for a user of real magic? It seems odd.)

Trope number two comes from the noir detective story: the protagonist gets beaten up, a lot, in the course of his inquiries. The official police are both corrupt and incompetent, and are more of a threat than a help to his investigation; his professional rival, though, is responsible for most of the beatings (and, incidentally, most of the crimes she claims to solve).

The protagonist is also overmatched by a more powerful opponent, and only determination and cleverness enable him to stand up against the antagonist at all, but that's a trope I thoroughly enjoy, so I approve of it.

Other than that, the story wasn't too troperific. Magic has a cost, which is something I like to see. The mystery pace is good: not too drawn out, with progress always being made, but also not too quick and easy. The main character has a Tragic Past (which isn't fully gone into, and at the end of the book we still don't know the full circumstances of his fall), and it makes him empathetic and sets him up with a lost love and a full bundle of regrets. This helps him to be a fully rounded character, with contradictions and weaknesses as well as strengths. I liked him by the end, although there were moments when I didn't in the course of the story.

The minor characters are less fleshed out, but play their roles effectively and aren't simply cardboard cutouts. I got a sense of individuality from them, because they have characteristics which aren't just there because of the roles they play in the story or in the hero's life.

The problem is their names. I'm picky about names, and pay a lot of attention to them. Among the secondary characters that we meet early on are Kannice Lester, Devren Jervis (known as Diver), and Kelf Fingarin, which sound like made-up fantasy names to me, not names you'd encounter in eighteenth-century Boston. The author's note at the end reveals that he initially set the story in a secondary world, and I wonder if these names are left over from an early draft that wasn't in eighteenth-century Boston at all.

The first murder victim (at least, the first we encounter) is called Jennifer, a common name now, but very uncommon before it appeared in George Bernard Shaw's 1906 play The Doctor's Dilemma. I'm not saying a eighteenth-century Bostonian couldn't have been named Jennifer, but it's pretty unlikely unless her family were Cornish, and their surname, Berson, is German. I suppose the mother could have been Cornish, though.

So the research behind the names may not be up to the level of the historical and geographical research, which is, to be frank, at flood level sometimes. I appreciate a book set in a historical period which has a genuine sense of the time, but very few authors, having spent a lot of effort hauling water from the research well, are able to hold back from making the reader drink from the bucket. This author is not always one of those self-restrained authors.

That's a minor annoyance, though, in what is, overall, a well-written, well-edited, original and different book with a protagonist who I would follow through a series. It isn't my new favourite, but it's a worthy entry into the urban fantasy (and historical fantasy) field.

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Monday, 24 March 2014

Review: Orison

Orison by Daniel Swensen

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is sword-and-sorcery done right.

Not only is the writing and editing almost flawless, the plotting, the character development and the worldbuilding are all at a very high standard. I seldom see a book this good.

Set in a grim world, but not grimdark, it's the story of hapless lowlifes doing the right thing, largely because of their friendship with each other, at personal cost. There's tragedy, but it's not all tragedy. (In fact, there are some wonderful wry comic moments in the dialogue, especially between the mage and the warrior.)

The characters have depth, and there are things they care about and will fight for. They're proactive and largely self-rescuing.

The world is the creation of powerful, arbitrary, even malevolent dragon-gods (and how cool is that?) who continue to interfere for their own amusement and to advance their inexplicable agendas, and against this seemingly hopeless backdrop the characters do the right thing anyway.

I normally only give five stars to books that have an extra layer of depth to them, that point outside themselves to deeper truths about the human condition, and/or those that are beautifully as well as competently written. Although the language here doesn't make it all the way to beautiful, it's certainly got the competent dial turned all the way up, and everything else is also so well done that I decided to award the fifth star - even before I worked out that this book does have something profound to say about the human condition and the perseverance of hope and friendship in the face of oppression.

I bought Orison because I'd seen several friends recommend it, and I wasn't at all disappointed. I recommend it very highly indeed.

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Thursday, 20 March 2014

Review: The Order Master

The Order Master
The Order Master by Brian Rush

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

(Disclaimer: I was a beta reader for this book, and know the author on social media. I received a free copy as a beta reader. The author also beta reads for me.)

What I most liked about this book is that it isn't constrained by convention. It's making use of the freedom that is indie publishing to not produce another clone of whatever's currently fashionable, to try something different, new and unexpected.

First of all, it's science fantasy. The aliens have advanced technology, but they also use magic - not "sufficiently advanced technology that's indistinguishable from magic" but actual magic. There are a few authors doing this blend of aliens and urban fantasy (Lindsay Buroker in [b:Torrent|18524705|Torrent (Rust & Relics, #1)|Lindsay Buroker||26228603] and Ilona Andrews in [b:Clean Sweep|19090384|Clean Sweep (Innkeeper Chronicles #1)|Ilona Andrews||21910727] being two I've read recently), but it's still unusual. It's a bold move, but I think it works.

Secondly, the story is, in many ways, morally uncomplicated. I need to put a lot of caveats around that, though. There's a torture scene, there's underage sex and a teenage girl who tries to seduce an adult man (having been abused by her father), and the main character is, technically, a serial killer. (However, he's killing evil aliens, and is unhappy about it.) Even the "good" aliens are manipulative and can be ruthless.

What I mean by "morally uncomplicated" is that there's not a lot of ambiguity about what the right choice is for the protagonist, even though there are drawbacks to it. That's fine; the story isn't about making a difficult choice, but about a risky alliance made against a clear threat. I did think that there could have been more ambiguity for longer about whether the "good" aliens were actually good, and that it would have added to the tension, but again, this is a choice the author is making regarding what his story is about. There's a group of aliens that are into power, torture and domination; there's another group of aliens that not only want to stop them but propose to do so by helping humans not be like that either. Put like that, why would you need to debate?

No, the story isn't about choices that are evenly balanced, but choices that involve risk and danger. It's old-fashioned heroism. At the same time, there's enough modern (or maybe postmodern) awareness of moral ambiguity and messiness in the book that readers may stumble over the clarity of the good/bad divide in a way that they wouldn't in a work that never alluded to that messiness. We only wonder about the black-and-white nature of the two sides at all because there are passages of philosophical, political and religious reflection that question traditional black-and-white ideas.

This isn't a book of philosophy, though, any more than it's about difficult moral choices. There's plenty of action, well described, and the plot moves along swiftly. It's also one of the best-edited books I've ever beta read. I spotted only a few minor errors, which I, of course, passed on to the author, and which I believe he's fixed. There are plenty of books coming out from traditional publishers that aren't this clean, and they aren't this original, either.

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Monday, 17 March 2014

Review: Please Don't Tell My Parents I'm a Supervillain

Please Don't Tell My Parents I'm a Supervillain
Please Don't Tell My Parents I'm a Supervillain by Richard Roberts

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is one of those cases where I enjoyed a book despite very serious suspension-of-disbelief issues. Accordingly, it gets four stars.

(The following could be considered a bit spoilery, since I discuss things that happen in the book that broke my suspension of disbelief.)

OK, so the main character, Penny, is the child of two superheroes. Her father is a supergenius technologist, and her mother is basically the detective aspect of Batman without the angst.

They're aware that Penny's mad science superpowers are starting to cut in, though they don't realise that they have, in fact, fully cut in. She uses them to give her two friends, Ray and Claire, superpowers as well.

Through a series of events involving their school's Mean Girl, who turns out to be a superhero sidekick, the trio end up getting labelled as supervillains in their super identities. They recognise the mean girl, but she doesn't, apparently, recognise them, despite the fact that Ray's costume is just his normal clothes (including a distinctive hat) plus a mask and a jacket, and the fact that he has a distinctive accent. The mean girl is even responsible for naming Penny's supervillain persona Bad Penny, even though, as I say, she apparently doesn't know that they are the same person.

Claire and Ray also have code names based closely on their real names.

Here's the suspension of disbelief problem. Although several other people, including a supervillain leader, figure out their identities, Penny's parents are clueless. No idea. This despite the fact that her mother's powers are ideally suited for figuring out exactly this kind of thing, and despite the fact that really, it's pretty obvious.

I mean, if there was a powerful "Clark Kent effect" mad science device involved, that would be one thing, though it would also spoil the plot point where the supervillain leader figures out the secret and blackmails them, but there is nothing in the book that makes this blindness of Penny's mother's remotely plausible.

Also, by a suspiciously convenient coincidence, the trio manage to pick up a powerful artefact that they didn't know existed because Penny randomly decides to pretend she's looking for jade as a distraction from something else, and this thing is made of jade.

Also, Claire is apparently extremely good at finding out things using Google that, if they could be found out using Google, would lead to crimes being foiled before they were even started. Probably by Penny's mother.

Also, the kids are way too powerful and successful for 13-year-olds - though I accept that as a genre trope.

So, suspension of disbelief: broken. Oddly, though, I found I didn't mind that much. The characters are fun (and reasonably believable as early teens), the superheroics are fun, the whole thing is enjoyable. You already have to suspend a lot of disbelief for supers in the first place; why not a bit more?

The editing is about what I've come to expect from a small press: not awful, but a long way from great. There are about 30 minor issues, mostly missing words and incompletely revised sentences (seriously, read it backwards, or upside down, or aloud, editors), but the author also appears unaware of the need for an apostrophe in expressions like "after a few minutes' wait", and uses this construction several times. Again, it wasn't bad enough to drop a star.

Definitely on the low end of the four-star spectrum, but overall an enjoyable light read.

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Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Review: More Than Somewhat

More Than Somewhat
More Than Somewhat by Damon Runyon

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've read this book several times, as my parents had a copy. This re-read was initially because I was writing a story in the style of Runyon and wanted to get it right, but I ended up finishing the volume because I was enjoying the stories.

The way a Runyon story generally goes is this: the unnamed (and unreliable) narrator meets up with some shady characters, and finds out about a way in which someone else has been mistreated. In the end, though, someone, often not the person you'd expect, does the right thing, to the comfort of the good and the discomfort of the heartless.

It's not just a formula, though. The situations are as varied as the slang, and the characters as vivid as their nicknames. Everything takes place in a relentless present tense, including the dialog.

Because this is low life around Broadway in the 1930s, there is considerable casual sexism and indeed racism, though generally the "dolls" (women) who are mistreated by men end up at least getting avenged, if not avenging themselves. Justice, however rough, is generally served. There's a strong sense, though, that tragedy is an everyday thing for the varied characters, and that they seldom expect any better.

All in all, a bittersweet mixture of justice and injustice, tragedy and comedy, told in a distinctive and inimitable style.

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Monday, 10 March 2014

Review: In the Kingdom of Dragons: Dwarf and Dragon: An Epic Fantasy Adventure Series

In the Kingdom of Dragons: Dwarf and Dragon: An Epic Fantasy Adventure Series
In the Kingdom of Dragons: Dwarf and Dragon: An Epic Fantasy Adventure Series by D L Burnett

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I received a copy of this book via NetGalley for purposes of review.

I got not quite halfway through before I started skipping to see if it improved. As far as I could tell, though, it just went on in the same way: Unavoidable tragedy occurs. Main character feels bad about it, but there's nothing she can do. Repeat.

This doesn't make for a pleasant or interesting book. By halfway through, I want to see the main character of a book being a protagonist, taking decisive and at least partially effective action to improve matters and solve problems. I don't want to see more and more tragedies being piled up while she basically wrings her hands and feels helpless, despite being Fated, Cursed with Awesome and regarded as a goddess.

I think it was largely this that left me unengaged by the story. I honestly didn't care much what happened, because it was apparently going to be more of the same: the author rains down tragedy on passive characters, who suffer.

The editing has some small imperfections which I won't go into in detail. It's not bad for a small press. The style is no worse than most fantasy novelists produce, though it's no better. The worldbuilding is basic, and any time anything out of the ordinary happens it seems to be because of dragon blood, but it would have been adequate if the plot had consisted of more than a series of unfortunate events and the characters had any significant degree of agency.

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Saturday, 1 March 2014

Review: Degrees of Delusion

Degrees of Delusion
Degrees of Delusion by Lindsay Buroker

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I happily read more or less everything that Lindsay Buroker writes, because it's consistently good. This is no exception.

In a short compass, she manages to include several layers of relationship complication, a conflict of loyalties, and a clever heist. I do enjoy a good heist.

It's apparently not in the same setting as her Emperor's Edge books, but a different sword-and-sorcery secondary world, although there are plenty of similarities, and Emperor's Edge fans should enjoy it.

The editing is fine, and I don't think I spotted any issues.

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Review: Wistril Compleat

Wistril Compleat
Wistril Compleat by Frank Tuttle

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Similarly to [b:A Bad Spell in Yurt|1416852|A Bad Spell in Yurt (Daimbert #1)|C. Dale Brittain||1407220], this is mildly amusing fantasy involving a wizard. Yurt's wizard is young and hapless, a role filled here not by the title character Wistril but by his apprentice, but in both cases, the wizards have to contend with ethical limitations on their magic to resolve a series of threats.

Wistril Compleat consists of three short stories. In each of these stories, Wistril is unable to use magic directly against a hostile military force because of his oath as a White Chair mage, and resorts instead to subterfuge. This gives them a degree of sameness, and I would have liked one of the three to have a different challenge for the sake of variety.

Wistril is bombastic and formal, and his apprentice is snarky and pragmatic, and the interplay between them works well. However, the limited range of the stories, along with the fact that I found them only mildly amusing and not at all tense, means that I won't be rushing to read more by the same author.

It also needs a good going-over by a copy editor for numerous minor errors. I counted 27, mostly incompletely revised sentences, but also some misplaced apostrophes, misspellings, typos, missing words and the like. In such a short volume, that's a high number. I'll pass them on to the author, as I usually do, and hopefully he will fix them up.

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Review: Timebound

Timebound by Rysa Walker

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In last year's Amazon Breakout Novel winner, the green-eyed, martial-arts-trained heroine discovers she has unusual powers, loses her family, is infodumped to by a mentor she doesn't completely trust, and must choose between two love interests. She alone can fight against the shadowy villain's plan for world domination and global apocalypse.

Despite hitting so many YA cliches, this is a reasonably fresh and certainly entertaining story. It's also well edited. I found only a few minor errors: a missing quotation mark; the mangled cliche "if worse comes to worst"; a late-19th-century Irish child using the word "cool" in the modern sense; and (in the afterword) "illusive" used where the author means "elusive". Otherwise it was remarkably clean, a credit to Amazon's editors.

While it is set up as science fiction, the science doesn't bear close examination, particularly the genetic science. A single "genetic gift" just doesn't make you "good at computers" or predispose you to love a particular avocation, and I'm fairly sure the author misuses the genetic terms "dominant" and "recessive" as well. Nor is the logic of the time-travel devices and their limitations particularly consistent throughout the story. It's basically technology-as-magic, and genetic-gift-as-inherited-magical-gift. The idea that the time travel devices give off light that's seen in different colours by different individuals, and that those who can't use them can't see the light at all, makes no scientific sense, although it's a moderately cool idea. Basically, this is a fantasy given a superficially scientific-sounding skin.

The other setting element I want to mention is the religion founded by the villain as part of his power play. It would have been easy just to base it on a single real-world religion, but it's a blend of a number of elements: the syncretism of the Baha'i Faith, Scientology's ploy of restricting certain knowledge to the higher-level members and prosecuting leakers for copyright violation (though I'm not sure how that works with the foundation date in the early Renaissance), Mormonism's penetration into US public and political life (and social and sexual conservatism), and the hyped materialism with a spiritual veneer that characterises certain "Prosperity Gospel" Protestant churches. I'm not sure that the resulting chimera quite works as a believable religion, particularly the part about being founded at a time when diverging from the local Christian orthodoxy was a guarantee of violent persecution, but simply because it has so many elements from real religions it's believable enough to get by.

I enjoyed the characters, especially Kate, the viewpoint character. Despite her occasional poor decisions (which were emotionally, even if not logically, right), she's smart and capable and determined. Her martial arts expertise doesn't get her out of as many bad situations as one might expect, though she is relatively low-level, and she does have to be rescued by a man on one occasion, but she's mostly self-reliant and competent within the limitations of her knowledge, resources and maturity.

There's an interesting contrast between the two love interests. One specifically refuses to sleep with her on ethical grounds, although she offers, while the other mentions (referring to another woman, not Kate) that it's difficult to turn down a willing woman when you're 16. Kate's father is a decent man, and the other minor characters are easily distinguishable and have believable motivations.

The plot isn't always fast-paced, but it kept my interest throughout. Not every piece of information that gets dropped early on turns out to be significant later, and those elements could be trimmed (though this is clearly intended to be a series, and perhaps they'll be used later).

Overall, on my subscale within the four-star range (where 0 is "just above mediocre" and 9 is "just below amazing"), this scores a 3. Definitely entertaining, shows great promise, but still with some non-fatal weaknesses in pacing and worldbuilding.

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