Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Review: Republic

Republic by Lindsay Buroker

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If there's a word that characterises Lindsay Buroker's books, and especially her Emperor's Edge books, it's "reliable". You know pretty much what you're going to get: always something going on, multiple viewpoint characters, each of whom has self-doubt about something different and worries about what other people think of them and what other people mean by what they say and do, a fairly complex plotline in which the Empire (or, now, the Republic) is in peril, a bit of magic, some technology, fights, Amaranthe talking people into going along with her, Sicarius being hard to read, Maldynado wearing silly hats, hair's breadth escapes...

It's not easy to write books in which the plot is always moving along and, at the same time, the characters are developing and reflecting on events, but because of the tight third-person way this author writes, and the distinctive points of view of the characters, she consistently achieves it. I don't remember ever hitting an infodump, and yet the world is also consistently developing and opening out.

That's the positive. On the downside, the plots can also involve unlikely and convenient coincidences, especially when the main characters are getting hold of information that lets them know that there's some action to be taken. It does help to keep things moving (they're not doing tedious investigation work very often), but it's blatantly unlikely. I complained about this convenience in the first book, and again in the previous book, and here it is again, not once but twice. I'm also fairly sure that the technology works in ways that are highly unlikely or outright impossible - particularly the electricity underwater - although at least in this one I didn't notice any moments of outright unlikely human biology. (Some of the previous volumes have had the characters recovering suspiciously quickly, but this is an action trope, after all.)

The plant biology, now, that's unlikely. A three-inch cutting of a plant with no source of nourishment grows a foot and a half overnight (there's an odd mix of traditional and metric measurement, by the way).

This particular volume is long, but it never drags. It has multiple viewpoint characters: Sicarius the assassin, Amaranthe, Admiral Starcrest's wife and daughter, and Maldynado. Basilard, from Amaranthe's old crew, is also present, but isn't a viewpoint character and doesn't do much, and his love interest is barely a character at all. She doesn't get a name or any lines until nearly the end, and she's there solely to be his love interest. Not every character can be fully developed, I suppose.

Basilard is also the occasion of another unlikeliness. I don't care how good you are at languages, spending one day with a person during which a few conversations are translated for you will not make you fluent in their sign language, and will especially not give you advanced vocabulary for subjects that were never discussed at that time. It's a trope, I know, used to avoid tedium, but it still annoys me.

The editing standard in this volume appears to have dropped. I made 55 marks in my Kindle for typos, homophone errors (lots of those), punctuation glitches, continuity problems and unlikelinesses of one kind or another. I'll pass these on to the author, as I usually do, so expect most of them to be fixed soon, but if I found that many there'll be others I missed.

Overall, an enjoyable, but not outstanding, addition to an entertaining series, which achieves this mainly by delivering more of the same. If you love the series, by all means read it.

I received a free copy of the book from the author as thanks for a previous review.

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Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Review: The Lady Astronaut of Mars

The Lady Astronaut of Mars
The Lady Astronaut of Mars by Mary Robinette Kowal

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I follow the author's blog, and when I saw that this was on the Hugo ballot, and could be read online at, I thought I'd take a look.

It moved me. It was well-structured, all the ends tucked in and callbacks in the right places. It used symbolism and literary reference and pointed to issues of the human condition at large, like career versus family. All of this would usually add up to five stars from me, particularly since the author has as beautiful a voice on the page as she does when she speaks. It's the kind of strongly written, human story that wins Hugos, and it reminded me Mike Resnick's "The Homecoming", also Hugo-nominated (though that one didn't win).

But it's one of those stories that bombards the characters with pain and just doesn't let up on them. Now, that's a legitimate way to write a powerful story, and this is a powerful story, but... it somehow felt like a trick to me, a way to build empathy quickly in a short compass which didn't allow for a slower growth of identification through the actions the characters take. Instead, we come to empathise with them because of bad things that the author has happen to them and difficult decisions that they're faced with because of the bad things. As I say, a legitimate way to write a story, but I still felt that my emotions were being deliberately manipulated by someone who knew exactly what she was doing - ironically enough, in exactly the way that the main character's emotions were being manipulated by one of the other characters, something she resented.

The retrofuturistic setting leads to a couple of moments of near-infodump, too, and places it in an earlier age of SF. Again like the Resnick story, it could have been written 50 years ago, technologically speaking, and while this is also a legitimate thing to do, I do like my SF to look forward from today, not from 50 years ago.

Very skilled, very powerful, but I was left with reservations.

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Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Review: The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year: Volume Eight

The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year: Volume Eight
The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year: Volume Eight by Jonathan Strahan

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I should start by explaining that my three-star rating is a reflection of the fact that I mostly didn't enjoy these stories. It's not an objective measure of their quality, any more than their inclusion in a "Best Of" anthology can be, because tastes (and what people look for in a story) differ. Really, "Best Of" always carries an unspoken rider: "According to the taste and inclinations of the editor".

I'm somewhat outside the zeitgeist in my taste in fiction, I know. I don't care for stories that are dark, depressing, dystopian, pessimistic, tragic or about the horrors of war, and most of the stories in this collection are. I realise that I'm in a minority, and if you're not in that minority with me, you may well enjoy these stories more than I did.

Another reason I didn't enjoy some of them, though, was a specific writing style that many of them shared. It's a style I associate particularly with the magazine Clarkesworld, which I subscribed to briefly until I found that most of the stories were in this style, and in fact several of the stories here were originally published in Clarkesworld. Because I particularly dislike this style, I'm going to be unfair to it, and characterise it as would-be literary fiction, in which an alienated character drifts through an incomprehensible (but beautifully described) setting without taking effective action or making any real decisions, until the story stops with no resolution.

There are two other trends which I'm quite happy about (as long as they're not just participated in to be trendy) which this collection represents. One is setting stories in various non-Western cultures. I find that interesting and enriching. The other is the inclusion of diverse characters. In this collection, that's almost entirely done by the inclusion of lesbian characters (although there are a couple of disabled ones and one gay male), but it's a start.

Another common thread in several of the stories is the idea of mind-augmentation technology, and the different angles on it produce some interesting contrasts. It's obviously a hot topic for SF at the moment.

The editing of the book overall is fairly average, which is to say that there are a number of typos, some homonym or near-homonym errors, and a couple of instances of "alright" instead of the more correct "all right".

Unfortunately, the advance copy that I got from Netgalley for purposes of review was not a properly formatted Kindle file, but (I think) a PDF that got converted, and not only did this mean that there were extra or missing paragraph breaks, and strange formatting in the first lines of scenes and in titles, but there was no break between the stories, no table of contents and no way to navigate between stories without multiple page turns. Fortunately, one of my fellow reviewers here has listed out the stories in the order they appear, so I can comment on them individually, which would otherwise be hard to do.

“Some Desperado”, by Joe Abercrombie, confirmed for me what everything I'd heard already suggested: that Abercrombie writes really well, and that I would hate his books. The protagonist is desperate, broken, faced with impossible odds over which she doesn't really triumph all that much, and the overall vibe is very much "life sucks and then you die, without the possibility of change or improvement". It's not very SFinal; apart from the lack of guns, it could be a straight Western, and apart from the stage setting it could be a straight medieval. There's no magic, and no technology more complex than a bow, and no sociological speculation either.

“Zero for Conduct”, by Greg Egan, worked better than most for me. The protagonist is a protagonist, a young, female Afghan refugee in Iran who overcomes problems and dangers to achieve something wonderful. I got a powerful sense of the restrictions and threats that surrounded her, which added to her triumph.

“Effigy Nights”, by Yoon Ha Lee, is a Clarkesworld story. I didn't like it, but it was well done for what it was. I seem to remember reading it before; maybe it was in Clarkesworld at the time I subscribed. It's tragic and hopeless.

“Rosary and Goldenstar”, by Geoff Ryman, pulls together historical figures from the time of Shakespeare, including a young Shakespeare, and then doesn't do much with them. There's some philosophical reflecting, but not much in the way of a plot.

“The Sleeper and the Spindle”, by Neil Gaiman, is the first of several "retold fairytale" stories in the volume, which I generally liked better than the others. It's a wonderful twist on both Sleeping Beauty and Snow White, with a protagonist and a plot and a resolution (which points on to further adventures).

“Cave and Julia”, by M. John Harrison, is one of those pseudo-literary stories where the main characters just dither helplessly in a magical-realist setting. One of the least successful in the volume for me.

“The Herons of Mer de l’Ouest”, by M Bennardo, struck me as almost a horror story. Darker than I enjoy, and more about atmosphere and mood than events.

“Water”, by Ramez Naam, is dystopian, but in an "if this goes on" way that I didn't mind so much. It took the ideas of accepting ads in exchange for free technology, and targeted ads for individuals, to their ultimate conclusion, and built a dramatic story around them. A bit of a tendency to tell what the technology was doing rather than show the characters doing things was, perhaps, an inevitable result of the setup.

“The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling”, by Ted Chiang, was a bit too much of a lecture for my taste. It's structured as if it was a non-fiction piece, and I felt it could have been tightened and shortened, though the point it makes is good and the two stories (the supposed essayist's own story, and the story he tells as a sidelight) mesh well. It's up for a Hugo.

“The Ink Readers of Doi Saket”, by Thomas Olde Heuvelt, had a Thai setting that I enjoyed. It could, again, have been tighter, but overall I think it worked.

“Cherry Blossoms on the River of Souls”, by Richard Parks, had a Japanese setting, again (as far as I, a non-expert on the culture, could tell) well done, and it also had a clear narrative line and plot structure, something some of the other stories are missing. I liked the idea that encountering a monster is not the same as fighting it.

“Rag and Bone”, by Priya Sharma, is set in a dystopian Liverpool in which the moguls at the top literally exploit the flesh of the workers in a way that was never completely made clear. Cross-dressing and lesbian sex appear here for the first time in the collection. The tragic end wasn't to my taste.

“The Book Seller”, by Lavie Tidhar, in a far-future Israel, brings out a love of books and a compassion for the victims of war. It's a vampire story with a technological twist. Well done, I felt, though the ending is not that strong.

“The Sun and I”, by K J Parker, seems to be set in an alternate or analogue ancient Mediterranean, and is about a group of con artists who create a monotheistic solar religion and find that there may be more to it than their scam. The style is amusing, and the idea that what matters is the outcome, not the motivation, is an interesting one to think about.

“The Promise of Space”, by James Patrick Kelly, is a tragedy that, as one would expect from this well-known writing instructor, is well executed and moving. It's another brain-augmentation story.

“The Master Conjurer”, by Charlie Jane Anders, is, surprisingly, from Lightspeed magazine, which (from a brief subscription to it) I associate with dark and disturbing stories. This one is amusing, if you find hopeless losers amusing, and as a general thing I don't. It could do with a stronger ending, as well.

“The Pilgrim and the Angel”, by E. Lily Yu, features an Egyptian Muslim father who, when the Angel Gabriel takes him to Mecca, prefers to go and visit his uncommunicative son in America instead. The son is not communicating, one suspects, in part because explaining his girlfriend Rosa to his parents isn't going to go well. A good depiction of the contradictions and strains of family, but it could have got to that point a bit more quickly.

“Entangled”, by Ian R Macleod, is post-apocalyptic, a genre I dislike considerably. It's deeply tragic, too. Another case of "well done, but very far from my taste" (and another brain-augmentation story, incidentally).

“Fade to Gold”, by Benjanun Sriduangkaew, is another cross-dressing lesbian story, another kind-of-a-vampire-but-more-a-victim-than-a-monster story, another war story, another story set in Thailand and another tragedy. I don't have much more to say about it than that.

“Selkie Stories are for Losers”, by Sofia Samatar, is up for a Hugo this year. I thought there were plenty of better stories even in this volume. Not that this is bad, though it is depressing. The selkie idea is used both literally and metaphorically, and it's cleverly done, I just didn't enjoy it that much or think that it took the concepts to much of a conclusion.

“In Metal, In Bone”, by An Owomoyela, was the only story I actually skipped through. Another war story, and very graphic and dark. I don't remember the ending being strong.

“Kormak the Lucky”, by Eleanor Arnason, draws on Icelandic and Irish myth and does so, I think, very effectively. It has the feel of another retold folktale without actually being one, and at the same time is told with more depth of description and a more modern awareness than the tales it's based on. There's a homonym error in this one: "broach" for "brooch".

“Sing”, by Karin Tidbeck, features a disabled protagonist (like a couple of the other stories here). What looks like a love story takes a nasty, unexpected turn at the end which, for me, sounded an emotionally false note.

“Social Services”, by Madeline Ashby, is a horror story in the Twilight Zone mould. The logic of it doesn't bear close examination. It's set in a crumbling dystopia that only misses being post-apocalyptic because there hasn't been a single decisive event. Not at all to my taste, though again well done for what it is.

“The Road of Needles”, by CaitlĂ­n R Kiernan, is another retold fairy tale, this time Red Riding Hood in space. Well, OK. It could have been tighter and clearer. The protagonist happens to be half of a lesbian couple, but that doesn't drive the story in any way, which is how it often should be with diverse characters, in my opinion. Contains the error "negligent" for "negligible".

“Mystic Falls”, by Robert Reed, is another mental-augmentation story. I didn't find the concept made total sense or worked all that well.

“The Queen of Night’s Aria”, by Ian McDonald, surprised me. I've read a couple of McDonald's novels, years ago, and I remember him being a better writer than this. There are missing commas leading to breathless dialogue, "retraced" for "retracted", and several other typos, and the story could have stood to be tightened up considerably. It's set in some kind of planetary-romance Victorian Mars, and features (by my count) the only gay male character in the collection. It ends, or at least stops, in a tragic situation.

“The Irish Astronaut”, by Val Nolan, is another story that is longer than it really needs to be. It's not really SFinal, either, and is another story that's more mood than plot.

The best of these stories are good, but not, to my mind, amazing. The worst of them are pretentious faffing about without much point. In the middle are some that are longer than they should be, some that would be stronger if they only had endings, and some things that are well done but very much not the kind of thing I enjoy.

I read this collection in the hope of learning something about short story writing and the current market (since I'm writing more shorts these days). Unfortunately, what I mainly learned is that this editor's taste doesn't mesh with mine, and so I shouldn't seek out past or future volumes in this series.

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Friday, 18 April 2014

Review: Anno Domini 2000, or, Woman's Destiny

Anno Domini 2000, or, Woman's Destiny
Anno Domini 2000, or, Woman's Destiny by Julius Vogel

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I read this primarily because it’s a significant historical text, the first New Zealand science fiction novel, written by a former Premier of NZ after whom the prestigious Sir Julius Vogel Awards for speculative fiction are named. It’s also an early feminist novel, which is something I have an interest in.

I was told the book itself was bad, and it is. The author makes most of the typical new-writer mistakes. All his characters (even, arguably, the villain) are Mary Sues, paragons of virtue and accomplishment, brave, good-looking, popular, intelligent, and wealthy. Here’s a sample description: “She was dear to all who had the privilege of knowing her. The fascination she exercised was as powerful as it was unstudied. Her success in no degree changed her kindly, sympathetic nature. She always was, and always would be, unselfish and unexacting.”

He constantly tells instead of showing (as in the extract I just quoted). He infodumps – for an entire chapter, at one point. He’s longwinded and tendentious, even more than was usual in the 19th century. Remarkably for a politician, though not unusually for a utopian novelist, he appears not to know how human minds actually work; everyone is remarkably lacking in self-interest, greed or power-hunger, especially those who have a lot of money and power. He doesn’t appear aware, either, that the discovery of millions of tons of gold would devalue gold and cause economic chaos. There are plot holes and continuity errors. He several times describes things as indescribable. It’s pretty much the perfect storm of bad writing, apart from the fact that he could spell and punctuate and knew what the words he was using meant. At its very best, it’s pulp, and it doesn’t reach that level often.
The edition I read is from the NZ Electronic Text Centre, and they’ve done a fairly average job with proofreading the OCR scan – by which I mean that it’s full of errors that a spell-check should have caught.

The ideas, though, are interesting. At the end of the epilogue (with no heading to mark the transition from “I’m telling the story” to “I’m telling you why I wrote it”), Vogel says, “It is perhaps desirable to explain that three leading features have been kept in view in the production of the foregoing anticipation of the future.” (That’s how he writes. It’s awful.) Firstly, he was writing “to show that a recognised dominance of either sex is unnecessary, and that men and women may take part in the affairs of the world on terms of equality…” He does this by the simple expedient of showing a government full of women which works extremely well. By an odd coincidence, in 2004, only a few years after this book was set, New Zealand had women in all of the following positions: Prime Minister, Governor-General, Attorney General, Chief Justice, and CEO of the largest public corporation.

His second purpose was to depict the dominions of Great Britain (New Zealand, Australia, Canada, South Africa and a home-ruled Ireland) joined into “a powerful and beneficent empire” - so attractive that Egypt and Belgium join it too, rather randomly, and later so do some of the states of the US.
His third purpose was to suggest what amounts to a universal basic income, an idea which is now under serious consideration in several places as automation continues to eat jobs. Apart from the opening prologue and another long infodump later, this idea doesn’t really come into the novel at all, and it has no significance to the plot whatsoever, but it’s clearly something he believes in strongly, since out of the three ideas he spends the longest time talking about this one in his epilogue.
I found some of his other predictions interesting, as well. He spends a whole chapter infodumping about the invention of heavier-than-air flying craft which can fly easily and safely at 100 miles an hour. In his British Empire of the future, a previous Emperor has declared that learning dead languages is a waste of time, and everyone should be educated in science and engineering instead. At every desk in the federal parliament (which moves periodically between the countries of the empire) is a “hand telegraph” for the member to communicate with people outside. Waves, tides and wind provide energy which is converted to electricity or compressed air to power labour-saving devices.
There’s a written constitution, and free speech, except that it’s forbidden to even discuss several specific articles of the constitution: that the Empire should continue to be an Empire, that the current royal family should continue to rule it, and that none of the dominions should leave it. This becomes a plot point.

The Empire is protectionist, because free trade just sets cheap labour from outside against the labour of those inside. There’s a considerable estate tax (nevertheless, there seem to be plenty of people who have inherited a large amount of wealth). The Empire believes in “making the prosperity of its own people [its] first object,” which I actually think is a good political idea that could do with more exploration in our own time.

The Americans don’t believe in standing armies or fleets, because they can spend as much as they want any time they choose to fight and are the world’s greatest organisers. This doesn’t stop them from getting soundly trounced by the Empire after they invade Canada on a pretext because the President is annoyed with the Emperor for not marrying her daughter. (His main reason is that the young woman has red hair. He’s a ginger bigot.)

I wasn’t aware that Antarctica hadn’t been discovered in Vogel’s day. He refers to “a large island, easily accessible, which received the name of Antarctica,” but from the geographical description it’s clearly not the Antarctica we know. “From causes satisfactorily explained by scientists” (blatant technobabble for “because I want it to be this way,” not that it has any significance to the plot whatsoever), the temperature close to the Pole itself is “comparatively mild”. The island is inhabited by people who speak a language close to Maori but who have a lot of body hair, described as “a docile, peaceful, intelligent people” (noble savages, in other words). This is the only mention of Maori, or any other native people, in the entire book.

Vogel was setting out to do two things in this book: to communicate some of his ideas and speculations about the future, and to tell a story. He’s much more successful at the first than he is at the second. So, as a historical text, very interesting. As a novel, painfully bad. Let’s compromise on three stars here.

I have an extended plot summary at my blog ( which was too long to include in my review. I publish it in the expectation that it will be a lot more enjoyable to read than the book was.

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Anno Domini 2000

I was going to include this extended plot summary of Sir Julius Vogel's book Anno Domini 2000: Or, Woman's Destiny in my Goodreads review, but it turned out to be too long.

I hope it will be more entertaining than the book itself (that wouldn’t be hard). It also saves you having to read it yourself. You’re welcome.
(Yes, spoilers, but for a really old book that I suggest you don’t read.)
“The Reader” is me, not a generic reader, hence the male pronoun.

A Long Prologue, set in 1920: Establishes a character, and some ideas, that will have no importance in the rest of the book.
A Young Man: is well-educated, but hasn’t inherited money; gets married; has an accident three years later; is an invalid for two years; runs through what little money he and his wife have; suddenly has a 12-year-old crippled son; in desperation steals a loaf of bread for his starving family; is beaten by the baker, who doesn’t want to lose the business that he would have to lose in order to appear in court if he called the police; dies; turns out to have inherited an enormous fortune from a distant relative, whose lawyers couldn’t locate the family, but this has no impact on what happens next; becomes a rallying point for a movement for a universal basic income; and vanishes from the story.
Some Wealthy Bankers: meet in secret and agree that, although they of course wouldn’t use their power and influence for their own advantage, it’s OK to use it in the cause of improving society. They’ve recently used it to prevent Basically World War I (even the timing is close), because of course financiers don’t ever profit from war. They give several very long speeches, the upshot of which is that poverty can’t be allowed to continue; and vanish from the story.
The Reader: Shakes his head at the virtuous bankers.

Chapter I: Is set in the year 2000.
Not Much: has changed, except gradual improvements. (See Chesterton’s The Napoleon of Notting Hill for a similar example of dodging prediction of the future.) Except that a great many things have changed a lot, most notably the position of women in society.
The Author: infodumps for pages about this and other improvements.
The British Empire: is glorious, hurrah.
The Irish Question: is settled when the wealthy British dominions bully Britain into being just to the poor Irish.
The Main Character: is finally introduced, 14% of the way through the book. She’s Mary Sue, but her name is Hilda Richmond Fitzherbert. She’s 23, and practically perfect in every way, a member of the Federal Parliament and Under-Secretary of State for Home Affairs.
The Countess of Middlesex: comes in and urges Hilda to marry her (the Countess's) brother, Lord Reginald Paramatta.
Hilda: won’t have a bar of it. She doesn’t love him, or anyone. Oh, all right, she’ll see him.
The Countess: leaves.
Hilda: talks to herself: she’s attracted to him, yes, but she doesn’t trust him.
The Reader: thinks he knows where this is going.
The Reader: is mistaken.
The Prime Minister: is a woman, Irish, practically perfect in every way; comes in and confirms Hilda’s opinion of Lord Reginald as insincere and selfish, though a brave soldier.
The Two Women: discuss the question of Imperial succession.
The Author: says “A short explanation is necessary to make the case clear”; explains for pages.
The Reader: clutches his forehead.
The Constitution: says that the male descendants of the Emperor have precedence over the females in the succession; this is the only remaining legal difference in men’s and women’s status. (Incidentally, this was recently changed, in the real world, for the British royal family, and a similar change is underway for the peerage.)
The Government: wants the constitution changed, because equality.
The President of the United States: is a woman; wants the Emperor to marry her daughter; wants the constitution changed, because equality.
The Emperor: doesn’t want the constitution changed, because the President’s daughter has red hair and he doesn’t want to marry her (he's a ginger bigot), and besides he doesn’t think messing with the constitution sets a good precedent.
The Prime Minister: wonders whether the Emperor prefers another young woman, hint, hint, Hilda.
Hilda: doesn’t get the hint; thinks there are points to be made on both sides of the succession question; is summoned to see the Emperor.

Chapter II: Finally arrives, a fifth of the way through the book.
The Emperor: is practically perfect in every way; asks Hilda her opinion on the succession question; is concerned that the ruler should be able to lead the Empire in war, and of course assumes without discussion that a woman couldn’t do that and wouldn’t want to anyway, despite this being a feminist utopia in which women are equal in every possible way. Except for inheriting the Empire, and leading in war.
Hilda: is forthright about her opinion, but won’t advise him to go against his conscience.

Chapter III: Introduces the villain, Lord Reginald.
The Villain: is practically perfect in every way.
Hilda: turns him down like a sheet.
Lord Reginald: doesn’t understand that no means no; is angry; refuses the posting to London that Hilda has arranged to get him as far from her as possible; does so in such a way as to provoke a political issue.
The Author: has a long digression about how the military is organised; talks about how everyone is educated in science and engineering now; digresses from his digression to tell the story of an earlier Prince of Wales who didn’t believe in learning dead languages because there was no point and it was just snobbery anyway; explains how the digression was necessary to explain how the volunteer forces were so capable scientifically, which has no relevance to anything.
The Reader: rolls his eyes.
The Prime Minister: neatly defuses Lord Reginald’s political bomb by making the circumstances of his refusal of the post confidential.

Chapter IV: Consists of more back-and-forth about changing the constitution
The Emperor: deliberately doesn’t mention the issue in his speech at the opening of Parliament.
Lord Reginald: brings up the question anyway and forces a vote. He controls about 50 MPs who are not part of the Government or Opposition.
The Leader of the Opposition: is a woman; joins with Lord Reginald since she doesn’t want the constitution changed.
Lord Reginald: gives a long speech. No, a really long speech. Loooong.
The Prime Minister: kicks Lord Reginald’s ass in debate, and his resolution is lost.

Chapter V: Is about whether the Government resigns or not.
The Prime Minister: submits her resignation to the Emperor because they nearly lost the vote.
The Emperor: asks the Leader of the Opposition to form a government.
The Leader of the Opposition: won’t ask Lord Reginald to help her, because she doesn’t like him either; says she can’t form a government.
The Emperor: is surprised she hasn’t talked to Lord Reginald; reacts in such a way that the Leader of the Opposition admires him as practically perfect in every way; decides, in a long interior monologue, not to ask Lord Reginald to form a government; asks the Prime Minister to withdraw her resignation, which she does.
The Public: are happy with the outcome.
Lord Reginald: is not; swears revenge on the Prime Minister and is determined that Hilda will grovel at his feet and implore him to marry her; stops short of twirling his moustache by this much.

Chapter VI: Details how Lord Reginald attempts his revenge.
Hilda’s sister: is practically perfect in every way; acts as her secretary.
Lord Montreal: is practically… you know the chorus by now; has grown up with the sisters; has information about his commanding officer, Lord Reginald, who is forming a treasonous secret society.
Hilda: is annoyed that she has to deal with Lord Reginald, AGAIN; is so over him; sends for Colonel Laurient.
Colonel Laurient: is… you guessed it; is Jewish on his mother’s side (the Author is Jewish); has inherited lots of money from his aunt; is a great soldier; is a close friend of the Emperor, and secretly leads both his bodyguard and his secret service.
Hilda: is wise to this, because she’s so smart; gives him the skinny.
The Author: “Some explanation is necessary…”
The Reader: groans.
The Author: infodumps about how some parts of the Constitution not only can’t be changed, but can’t even be discussed, because there must be limits to liberty and free speech.
The Author: “It may be convenient here to state some of the broad features of the governing and social system…”
The Reader: “NOOOOOOO!”
The Author: infodumps about universal income some more, with reference to labour-saving devices, taxation, trade protection, estate duty, the importance of not inheriting so much wealth that you wouldn’t have any ambition to work, how nobody really minded and everyone was wealthier than ever, how the Dominion Governments and the Imperial Government split the tax take amicably, and how a large reserve fund had been accumulated and some people were suggesting that less tax would be nice. “This has been a long digression, but it was necessary to the comprehension of our story.”
The Digression: is about 5% necessary to the comprehension of the story.
Colonel Laurient: has cause to suspect that Lord Reginald’s group is treasonous, but no proof; thinks Hilda is the only possible person to infiltrate the group and get proof, because she’s so smart.
Hilda: is up for it.
The Meeting Room: is set up in such a way that you can meet there and not be overheard.
The Meeting: will be attended in cloaks and hats to conceal people’s identities.
Colonel Laurient: has a plan which involves “artificial magnetism”.
Hilda: mentions that she discovered that. She’s so smart. (This is the only mention of her doing anything other than politics, and we don't actually see her doing much of that either, but... she's just so awesome, she can do anything.)
The Cloaked Meeting: commences.
The Speeches: start out being about the taxes being too damn high; get gradually more treasonous until someone suggests that Australia should form its own Empire with Lord Reginald as Emperor.
One of the Organisers: shuts this down, because his name isn’t supposed to come up, but gets the delegates to take off their hats and cloaks one at a time and declare in favour of an Australian Empire.
Hilda: when her turn comes, declares herself not in favour.
The Crowd: want to kill her.
Lord Reginald: says no, she shall live on one condition, leave her to him.
The Reader: has a shrewd idea of what the one condition is.
Hilda: leaps onto an insulated dais and presses two buttons.
Words: “are insufficient to describe the effect”; proceed to describe the effect.
The First Button: freezes everyone in place by “magnetic electricity”.
The Second Button: turns on the lights, showing everyone’s faces with frozen expressions, mostly “fear, terror, cruelty or revenge…greed, thwarted ambition, personal malignity, and cruelty horrible to observe”, and in the case of Lord Reginald, “triumphant revenge and brutal love terrible to look at”.
A Third Button: summons the gendarmes, who, under Hilda’s instructions, photograph everyone but only arrest the people in the top three rows.
Hilda: is overcome with emotion and must be almost carried into her house by Colonel Laurient, despite being a modern, equal woman and yada yada.

Chapter VII: is about Hilda being honoured.
The Emperor: sends her a portrait of himself surrounded with diamonds.
Hilda: instead of thinking “what a knob,” kisses it and then blushes; is the hero of the hour.
Lord Reginald: because he wasn’t in the top three rows (since he was heading for Hilda), didn’t get arrested and has got away.
The Emperor: wants to make her a Countess.
Hilda: thinks she isn’t rich enough.
The Prime Minister: reminds her that a project that her grandfather put in motion, which has been running for 50 years, which promises to make her a millionaire, is almost completed.
Hilda: had forgotten about that.
The Reader: finds this hard to believe.
Hilda’s sister Maude: has a thing for Lord Montreal.

Chapter VIII: Consists entirely of an infodump about air-cruisers.
The Author: “We trust our readers will not be wearied because it is necessary to give them at some length an explanation concerning the aerial machines to which reference has so often been made as air-cruisers.”
The Reader: is wearied.
The Explanation: is not necessary.
Explosives: are the secret; blow up some prominent people as inventors try to figure out how to use them.
The Secret: is finally discovered by a young Jewish woman based on ancient knowledge.
The Young Woman: is the aunt of Colonel Laurient; leaves him a bundle.

Chapter IX: Is mostly about gold.
The Author: digresses on the cultivation of pumice-stone land, the island of Antarctica, etc., then says, “An account of the river-works will not be unacceptable.”
The Reader: “Yes, actually, it will. Shut up.”
The Author: tells us, at length, all about the river-works, which are a scheme by Hilda’s grandfather to divert the waters of a river which has gold in it so as to get at the gold.
The Gold: is worth millions; unaccountably does not ruin the economy or crash the price of gold.
Hilda and Maude: are worth millions.
Lord Montreal: has sold his stake in the scheme to Colonel Laurient; won’t marry Maude out of pride.
Colonel Laurient: says it was only a loan, don’t worry about it, just pay me what you borrowed plus interest and it’s all good.
Lord Montreal: proposes to Maude.
Hilda: leaves the room, “an example the historian must follow”.

Chapter X: Advances the plot, as a nice change of pace.
The Emperor: makes Hilda the Duchess of New Zealand.
The Prime Minister: asks her to be Lord President of the Board of Education.
Hilda: decides to take the waters at Rotomahana, Te Aroha and Waiwera before going to London (where the Parliament is moving next, thus rather invalidating Hilda's move of attempting to send Lord Reginald to London so he wouldn't bother her, but plot consistency is not the Author's strong point).
The Author: goes on for several pages about hot springs.
A Yacht: is moored offshore at Waiwera.
A Note: purports to be from the Prime Minister and invites Hilda onto the yacht.
Lord Reginald: is actually the owner of the yacht; stops short of saying “Aha, my proud beauty!” and twirling his moustache by this much.
Hilda: turns him down like a sheet.
The Author: tells instead of shows regarding Lord Reginald’s character.
Lord Reginald: tries to force Hilda to marry him, apparently still confused on the whole “no means no” issue.
Hilda: jumps off the yacht.
Colonel Laurient: is injured while rescuing her in an aircraft.
Lord Reginald: tries, and fails, to shoot the aircraft down.
Hilda: is uninjured, but her nerves are much shaken and for many days she fears to be left alone, despite being courageous and practically perfect and a modern, equal woman.
Colonel Laurient: has a thing for Hilda, but, being a better man than Lord Reginald, doesn’t make an issue of it.

Chapter IX: Is mostly about the Irish Question and has little if anything to do with the plot.
Maude: marries Lord Montreal.
The Author: is snide about the London Lord Mayor’s Show, the effeminacy of Londoners (yes, that’s the word he uses), mentions that since London is lighted and heated with electricity instead of gas and coal it’s a much nicer city, and describes the opening of Parliament with the announcement of a tax cut.
The Prime Minister: is Irish, remember; at a celebration in Dublin, gives a long speech about how the Irish Question was settled.
Long Speech: is long.

Chapter XII: Shows the British Empire going to war with the USA.
The President of the USA: has invaded Canada, supposedly over a fisheries dispute but actually because she didn’t like the Emperor turning down her daughter.
The Emperor: is significantly pissed off, but also excited at the prospect of being able to have a war and show those Yankees what’s what; decides he’s going to invade the USA; appoints Colonel Laurient as his aide-de-camp; pretends he’s sending ships to Canada but actually sends them to America; describes his plan at length.

Chapter XIII: Is about the war; contains the most ridiculous bits in the whole book.
Hilda: is just so awesome, the Author can’t even.
Phoebe Buller: is her secretary now that Maude is married, because married women apparently can’t work or something, despite feminist utopia.
A Lawyer: has a thing for Phoebe; is mentioned only to be dismissed.
Captain Garstairs: also has a thing for Phoebe.
Mary Maudesley: is from a poor background but really good at the whole nursing thing; is appointed as head of the ambulance corps.
Captain Garstairs and Phoebe: go to interview Miss Maudesley; are impressed; get engaged before Garstairs goes off to war.
The Author: “At the risk of wearying our readers with a monotony of events, another scene in the same mansion must be described.”
The Reader: sighs.
The Emperor and Hilda: get engaged before the Emperor goes off to war.
New York: falls to the Imperial forces quickly and with few casualties.
Washington: falls to the Imperial forces quickly and with few casualties.
The President: is captured; goes with Colonel Laurient, along with her daughter and staff; is named Mrs. Washington-Lawrence, apparently through a failure of the Author’s imagination, since the city of Washington and the St Lawrence River are mentioned in close proximity.
A Hundred Thousand British Troops: head from New York to the Canadian frontier to take the American army in a pincer movement.
Lord Reginald: hasn’t been arrested for treason, for abducting Hilda, for firing at the aircraft, or for causing injury to the Emperor’s best friend/head bodyguard/chief of intelligence, “because the publicity would have been most repugnant” to Hilda.
The Reader: is incredulous; wonders if the Author has something against the justice system, since this is the second time something like this has come up, not to mention Phoebe’s rejected suitor, the lawyer.
Lord Reginald: is with the force from New York; needs to communicate with the Canadians.
The Air-Cruisers: can’t land at night in unknown territory.
Radio: hasn’t been invented (fair enough).
Semaphore or Morse using lights on the aircraft, or for that matter from the hills which are about to be mentioned: would make sense, and so would briefing the Canadian commander in advance, since this was the Emperor's plan from the start, but the Author wants to show Lord Reginald being heroic, so shut up. Writing is hard.
Each Man: carries “an electric battery of intense force, by means of which he could either produce a strong light, or under certain conditions a very powerful offensive and defensive weapon.” They don't use these lights to signal the Canadians. 
Lord Reginald: is militarily awesome, despite being so rapey, and is allowed to lead the 50-man force; climbs some hills and looks over the American and Canadian camps; sneaks most of the way round the American camp, but has to cross at a point where it’s only half a mile in width, and then go two miles to the Canadian camp.
The Troops: march in two lines, with “flexible platinum aluminium electrical wire” stretched between them which will zap anyone who touches it. Worst. Melee weapon. Ever.
Captain Garstairs: is second in command.
Fifty Men: sneak up on the Americans until they’re three feet from a sentry without being noticed, then zap the sentry.
The Author: “Then ensued a commotion almost impossible to describe.”
The Author: proceeds to describe the commotion.
Lord Reginald and Garstairs: run through the camp, zapping nine Americans as they go.
The Americans: can’t shoot much in case they hit their own men.
The Troops: lose 20 men out of the 50 while running through the camp; break out onto the plain between the two camps.
The Americans: turn on powerful lights and start shooting; apparently aren’t very good shots; only get another 10 men.
The Canadians: instead of shooting out the Americans’ lights so that their allies can’t be seen and shot, turn on lights of their own for no obvious reason.
Captain Garstairs: is hit in the leg with 100 yards to go; says “Good-bye, Reginald. Tell Phoebe Buller -”.
Lord Reginald: coolly picks up Garstairs and carries him into the Canadian camp.
The Americans: are good sports and don’t shoot at him; cheer when he makes it.
Captain Garstairs: is looked after by Mary Maudesley; doesn’t lose the leg.
Lord Reginald: gives the Canadians the skinny; flies out in a plane, which The Reader at first thought contradicted what was said earlier, but that was just that a plane couldn’t land in unknown country at night. Though the Canadians had lights, so… No, don’t overthink it. Lord Reginald needed to be a hero, and because the Emperor is so militarily awesome that there was hardly any fighting there had to be a contrived incident for Lord Reginald to be a hero in, so shut up. Writing is hard.
The American Commander-in-Chief: “knew nothing of the British army in his rear.” Despite the fact that a British force of 50 men had just come from there and broken through to the Canadians. It had “occasioned him surprise; but his mind did not dwell on it in the midst of the immediate responsible duties he had to perform.” He also hasn't noticed the suspicious lack of news from Washington and New York. Fail.
The Emperor: personally leads the ass-kicking party; lets the Americans surrender instead of wiping them out.

Chapter XIV: Is about how Americans are not very patriotic.
The President: isn’t popular because she’s got the US invaded and trounced; considers resigning; gets engaged to the captain of the British flagship where she’s being held.
The President’s Daughter: gets engaged to the Admiral, one-upping her mother.
The Emperor: is relieved to be rid of the ginger, and gives them both diamonds as wedding gifts.
The US: has to pay six hundred million pounds (which they borrow from money-lenders), and salute the British flag.
The People of New York and New England: vote four to one to secede from the US and join Canada, because Americans love to be conquered and aren’t particularly patriotic.
The Money: is given back to the new states as a goodwill gesture. Though they will still have to pay it back, because it's a loan, so the winners here are clearly the moneylenders.

Chapter XV: Actually has some good bits in it.
The Emperor: is militarily awesome, because trouncing ill-prepared incompetents with a vastly superior force is really hard, especially when you haven't set up any way to communicate between the two parts of your force and have to get 40 men killed to pass the word; announces his engagement to Hilda.
The People: are basically OK with this.
Hilda: is going to give her new mansion to Phoebe and now-Colonel Garstairs, because she won’t need it when she’s married; is writing to her sister; looks up and with dismay beholds the face of Lord Reginald Paramatta; asks him how dare he thus intrude, though she feels a bit sorry for him because he looks ill and careworn.
Lord Reginald: is dying for the want of her; still hasn’t grasped “no means no”.
Hilda: trims him up, reminding him that love “seeks the happiness of the object it cherishes, not its misery.” Go, Hilda.
Lord Reginald: is under the impression that she was into him once.
Hilda: corrects this error in unambiguous terms.
Lord Reginald: is crushed.
Hilda: tells him that if he loved her, he would have the strength to sacrifice his urges to her happiness; compliments his courage; urges him to be “brave now morally as well as physically”.
Lord Reginald: can’t do it, he is here to carry her away.
Hilda: screams and flees.
A Bearded Man: enters and is revealed to be Laurient; sends Hilda off to safety and confronts Lord Reginald; has been having Lord Reginald followed since he tried to abduct Hilda last time; challenges him to a duel, because this is still a thing in the 21st century.
The Two Men: shoot each other.
Lord Reginald: is dying; asks Hilda’s forgiveness and her prayers.
Hilda: grants this.
Lord Reginald: dies.
Colonel Laurient: dies three days later; is greatly mourned by Hilda and the Emperor.
Hilda and the Emperor: marry, a month later than planned because of mourning for Laurient.

An Epilogue: Is set 20 years later.
The Imperial Couple: have had five children, but the eldest, a son, dies of a bite from a rabid dog, and the two youngest die in early childhood, leaving two. (Probably fairly typical for a Victorian family.)
Princess Victoria: is now the eldest; is practically perfect in every way, and would be an ideal heir; is her father’s favourite; has reached her majority.
Prince Albert Edward: is sickly; isn’t interested in public affairs; won a gold medal at the age of 16 for a paper on psychology he sent in anonymously to the Imperial Institute; is his mother’s favourite; has no interest in the military; is about to reach his majority.
The Emperor and Empress: have switched views on the question of female succession; don’t discuss it; are slightly estranged because of this, though they still love each other.
Phoebe Buller: is now Leader of the Opposition, apropos of nothing much.
The Emperor: won’t change the succession without his son’s consent, however much he thinks his daughter would do a better job.
The Emperor and Empress: have a long discussion.
Hilda: “I will not allow you to underrate yourself. You are faultless in my eyes. No human being has ever had cause to complain of you.”
No Other Wife Ever: said that to her husband.
Prince Albert: comes in and joins the conversation; was about to raise the subject himself; though he doesn’t usually read the papers, has heard that there’s strong public opinion that his sister should be the heir; agrees; gets his sister in.
Princess Victoria: really is awesome, the Author can’t even.
Everyone: yaks on for a few more pages, mainly going over the same ground again; agrees to change the succession.
The Author: without transition, talks about why he wrote the book.
The Reader: puts it down with relief.

(If you enjoyed the format for the plot summary, I stole it from Cleolinda Jones.)

Monday, 14 April 2014

Review: L. Ron Hubbard Presents Writers of the Future Volume 30

L. Ron Hubbard Presents Writers of the Future Volume 30
L. Ron Hubbard Presents Writers of the Future Volume 30 by Dave Wolverton

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I received this book via Netgalley from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

The Writers of the Future contest is held in high regard within the SFF field, largely because of the many fine writers who have had a boost to their early careers through it and the prominence of the judges (and despite its association with L. Ron Hubbard, of which more later). This volume contains some excellently-written stories, some of which weren't to my taste but were well done anyway.

I'll go through the contents in detail. We start with pages and pages of boosterism from past winners, judges etc., which I skipped. Dave Wolverton's introduction can probably be skipped, too, as it just says how good it is to be a judge and how great the stories are.

Each writer, including the editor and the other non-contestant contributors, is introduced with a long biography, written in the first person but clearly by the writer in most cases. Likewise, the illustrators get a similar introduction - they are competitors in the parallel Illustrators of the Future contest.

"Another Range of Mountains" by Megan E. O'Keefe is the first story, a moving tale of a woman who can scry using any reflective surface and see what it has reflected in the past. She's on the run, and gradually we find out why. This kind of gradual reveal is a feature of several of the stories in the collection, and works well to sustain reader interest. In this case, the crumbs of revelation are doled out between character action, which also keeps it interesting. A couple of issues, though: sometimes I couldn't figure out who was speaking (easily fixed with more dialog tags), and the author uses "leech" when she means "leach".

"Shifter" by Paul Eckheart surprised me with its ending. In fact, it surprised me with its everything. I was unclear on why someone who could become anyone he/she could imagine would become a poor black kid living in a housing project, though. Possibly to hide, though, if so, it wasn't clear from who or what. This one included the word "base" when it should have been "bass".

"Beneath the Surface of Two Kills" by Shauna O'Meara impressed me with its parallelism between two stories of hunting, one by a nature lover and one by a murderous stalker. It's another "gradual reveal" story, but the parallelism strengthens the gradual reveal even more.

"Artistic Presention" by L. Ron Hubbard is an odd piece, preceded by an odd and laudatory biography which presents Hubbard as being known "primarily as a writer", which isn't, of course, the case. The oddness of the piece appears in leaps of logic, and in sentences like "The less effort a person can confront, the more effect of effort he becomes," which may contain some sort of transcription error or could just be the kind of deliberately confusing sentence one finds in cult literature. (The piece's origin isn't mentioned, but I suspect Dianetics.) It's followed by a Hubbard short story from 1950, "Beyond All Weapons".

Now, from the viewpoint of the organisation that funds it, which owns the copyrights to Hubbard's works, the main purpose of the Writers of the Future contest is presumably to promote the Hubbard name. I'd suggest that this might be better served by not republishing pieces like this. I haven't read any other Hubbard, so I can't comment on his work overall, but this piece is an average story for 1950, on the cusp of the post-pulp era, at a time when other writers like C.L. Moore and Murray Leinster were already writing much deeper, more thoughtful stuff. There's a lot of "tell" and very little "show", the characters lack any depth and are mainly there to explain the ideas, there's casual sexism baked right in, and in short it's a fairly typical pulp story. The introduction makes much of the fact that it's the first fictional use of Einstein's time-dilation theory, so I suppose that somewhat invalidates my other criticism, that the story can only occur because the characters are monumentally ignorant of this now-well-known phenomenon. Among the fine contemporary stories in this volume, though, this piece looks like a rusty 1950s tractor set next to the latest in agricultural machinery.

"Animal" by Terry Madden is somewhat dystopian and, in a way, technopessimist, which isn't to my personal taste, but it's a fair enough exploration of the closeness of animal and human species and the importance of being able to interact with them.

"Rainbows for Other Days" by C. Stuart Hardwick is post-apocalyptic, again not a genre I enjoy, and also tragic. Setting aside the fact that I didn't care for it, it's well done.

"Giants at the End of the World" by Leena Likitalo was the first story in the volume that really got me comparing it to Forrest Gump's box of chocolates. It outlines a difficult journey ending in a realisation, which is a rather literal and linear use of the journey metaphor, and the realisation/resolution doesn't come for the viewpoint character but for another. This seldom works.

"...And Now Thirty" by contest judge Robert Silverberg is a reflection on the anthology series, including extensive quotations from Silverberg's similar pieces in earlier volumes. It includes a good bit of praise of L. Ron Hubbard and an extended section on how contest winners have gone on to great things.

"Carousel" by contest judge Orson Scott Card is a strange magical-realist story about what happens when the dead are resurrected and left on earth to interact with their families, but without passions or desires. It's not a good thing. The protagonist convinces God (who he accuses of having a "limited skill set") to try a different approach. There's an odd typo: "L. Ron" for "ticket".

"The Clouds in Her Eyes" by Liz Colter is another piece that seems to be techno-pessimistic, if I'm correct in interpreting the electricity-producing grubs as a metaphor of technology destroying the climate. It also involves a Chosen One, and a magical-realist ship sailing above the land, one that only the Chosen One can see. Again, not to my taste.

"What Moves the Sun and Other Stars" by K.C. Norton tells of a rescue from a bizarre prison comet. It's a traditional adventure story in structure, dressed in strange clothing, though it does explore (or at least raise) ideas of machine intelligence and emotion. The cyborg narrator is a bit inclined to hyperbole, describing a thousand years variously as "a hundred generations" and "a star's age". There's also the typo "a little father" for "a little further".

"Long Jump" by Oleg Kazantsev is another techno-pessimist tragedy that I disliked enough not to care how good it was.

"These Walls of Despair" by Anaea Lay, despite the title, is a much more hopeful story, complex, raising moral and ethical questions about emotion and its manipulation from its natural course. The idea of a profession of emotion chemists was well thought of and well handled.

"Synaptic Soup" by Val Lakey Lindahn is a short piece by an Illustrators of the Future judge, similar to Silverberg's in many ways.

"Robots Don't Cry" by Mike Resnick shows a master at work, one of the contest judges exhibiting the facility at taking readers on an emotional journey that has made him the most awarded person in history for short fiction.

"The Shaadi Exile" by Amanda Forrest starts with the premise of Indian brides sent by (relativistic, time-dilating) wormholes to other planets for arranged marriages and builds a beautiful human story around it.

"The Pushbike Legion" by Timothy Jordan is that rare thing, a post-apocalyptic story that I don't dislike. Perhaps it's the Britishness of it, combined with the hopeful ending.

"Memories Bleed Beneath the Mask" by Randy Henderson posits memory-transfer technology that enables knowledge to be passed - or rather moved - from one generation to the next. It works well enough as a story, but I felt there were better stories in the volume.

"A Word on the Art Direction" by Stephen Hickman, contest judge for Illustrators of the Future, is brief, but could be omitted without loss.

"The Year in the Contests" talks about how many past WOTF alumni did well in 2013.

Then we close with the rules of the contests and a couple of ads, one for the "towering masterwork of science fiction adventure" Battlefield Earth by L. Ron Hubbard, and one for a multi-volume deal on WOTF collections.

Overall, I enjoyed most of these stories, and I certainly learned something. They are stories of intimate human lives which focus on things of deep emotional importance, and the slow-reveal and parallelism techniques are ones I want to try in my own stories.

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Friday, 11 April 2014

Review: Ghost Hand

Ghost Hand
Ghost Hand by Ripley Patton

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I know the author slightly through social media and our shared membership of SpecFicNZ, so I've heard a lot from her about how people love this book and keep giving it rave reviews. I found that justified. It didn't meet my own five-star standard (which involves beautiful, not just competent, prose and insightful commentary on the human condition), but it's high up in the fours.

A large part of this is down to the characters. Far from being the usual tropes and stereotypes, they read as real people, and as real teenage people. The adults are not as fleshed out and three-dimensional, but as it's told from a teenager's viewpoint that's almost a feature.

The main (and viewpoint) character, in particular, is very strong. Olivia has a magical power, true, but what really makes her dangerous (including to herself) is her feisty attitude. She's not stupid, either, and is realistically emotionally adept - meaning that she does make mistakes, but she's able to learn from them.

Nobody is unrealistically perfect here. They all have flaws and conflicts, they all make errors of judgement. At the same time, I was left with the sense that they have what they need to rise above their mistakes and triumph.

Looking back on the plot, there's not a single clear through-line. The main character's goals keep changing as she deals with others' actions and the consequences of her own choices. That's not a flaw. Like the imperfections of the characters, it helps the story come to life and feel almost like a narrative of real events, rather than a predetermined plot which functions as a set of rails to send the characters down.

The prose is clean, well towards the competent end of the spectrum. There are some minor issues which I'll discuss with the author, but that's true of most books I read, and apart from a couple of Inigo Montoya words none of them are too significant. This indie book, in fact, has about the same number of errors as the Brandon Sanderson book I read recently from Macmillan, and the Sanderson ones are probably worse, disproving once again the generalisation that self-published books are necessarily inferior products.

A fine start to what looks like being a series worth following.

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Monday, 7 April 2014

Review: Balanced on the Blade's Edge

Balanced on the Blade's Edge
Balanced on the Blade's Edge by Lindsay Buroker

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Normally I give anything described as a "steampunk romance" a big swerve, because they tend to be silly and not very well written. However, with the Lindsay Buroker brand behind it, I was confident that this would be the opposite, and I was right. While I don't go to a Buroker book expecting literature, I do go to one expecting to be competently entertained, and that was absolutely the case here.

The "main character has magic, which is forbidden" trope is pretty well-worn by this time, but it works here. This isn't just paint-by-numbers, but a fresh combination of classic elements with a few new twists. The cocky flyboy who's exiled because he ignores protocol one time too many, the incompetently run, remote prison that can be reformed with some empathy and thought, even the quest for an enchanted sword, all these are given a polish and come out feeling new.

The romance itself avoided the excesses of the genre, and I found it believable. The characters actually were attractive people (not a beast and an idiot, as is so often the case), they weren't starry-eyed but their connection felt natural and real, and the backstory about why neither of them had found such a connection before was plausible.

There was plenty of action and tension, in which pragmatic characters danced on the crumbling edge of their competence under multiple pressures to succeed, a hallmark of Lindsay Buroker's style.

As usual with a novella, I did wish it had been a bit longer, in particular that we had got more of the story between the last chapter and the epilogue. I can see why that was left out, though, and it's a minor loss.

Overall, well up to this author's usual high standard.

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Review: Elantris

Elantris by Brandon Sanderson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've seen complaints that Brandon Sanderson writes generic epic fantasy, and I've never understood them. Take this book, for example.

A magical city has malfunctioned for unknown reasons, and instead of being like demigods, its inhabitants are now undead lepers. Anyone in the country can be taken by the transformation that makes them an Elantrian, and near the beginning of the book the Crown Prince is so afflicted. Refusing to lie down and degenerate into mindlessness, he rallies the hopeless inhabitants of the city and gives them pride and a purpose. (I particularly liked the way in which he recruited an old cleaner and treated him with dignity, as a man who could transform the filthy city into a more pleasant place to live.)

Meanwhile, his fiancee (who has never met him; it's a political marriage, but with some hope of love) arrives from the allied country where she is a princess, to find that her betrothed is reported as dead and a third country is about to launch an invasion, spearheaded by their fanatical religion. Highly intelligent and competent, she determines to improve the lot of the local peasantry, rally the fading resistance that was started by the Crown Prince to his father's misrule, and keep the fanatics from taking over.

Oh, and they can talk over long distances using magical floating spheres, which appear to be AIs.

From there, we get plot twist after plot twist, plenty of dramatic irony, many, many things that aren't as they seem, love, loyalty, devotion, shifting allegiances, betrayal, tension, last-minute escapes, the slow reveal of a remarkable magic system... This is what I've come to expect from a Brandon Sanderson story, having read the first two Mistborn books.

Now, right at the end there were a couple of twists and shifts that I wasn't totally convinced by. Avoiding spoilers, let's say that the motivation of a couple of characters boiled down to love, and I didn't really buy it given everything else we'd seen from those characters. I thought that their belief systems would have been adequate motivation by themselves. Anyway, apart from that minor quibble, I thoroughly enjoyed this.

The editing had a few glitches, mainly that italics were applied to whole paragraphs where they should have only been used for the characters' thoughts, not the dialog tags and description as well. There were the usual minor typos that creep in, but nothing major or dramatic.


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