Thursday, 19 February 2015

Review: Dawn

Dawn by Octavia E. Butler

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read this first many years ago, and remembered mainly that it was good, and difficult. It is both of those things.

There are some powerful themes here: consent, for one; how we cope when we're in a situation we can't control, under the power of implacable forces; how we deal with reality; how we interact in groups; what it is to be human.

The initial premise of a humanity devastated and reduced to almost nothing by a nuclear exchange between the USA and USSR is the only thing that dates it. (The fall of the Soviet Union in 1989 is one of those rare watershed moments that divides science fiction into "obviously written before" and "obviously written after".) This makes it technically post-apocalyptic, a genre which I don't usually read, though that's a relatively minor thread in what is much more an alien-contact story. The action all takes place off Earth in the aliens' ship, though, of course, the war and its losses are a constant memory.

I was left with the feeling that, even though the aliens were unfailingly kind and well-meaning, they were still, in a way, abusers. It's an uncomfortable thought.

I bought the other two in the trilogy while they were on sale, but I'm not going to read them straight away. This is the kind of book I space out with lighter material in between.

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Monday, 16 February 2015

Review: Ralph 124C 41+

Ralph 124C 41+
Ralph 124C 41+ by Hugo Gernsback

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I remember reading about this book in histories of SF. No doubt groundbreaking for its time, it's heavy on the infodumps, and the plot is minimal and predictable. The sole female character (as far as I got - I was too bored to continue past 69%) is there to be an object of male fantasy, a McGuffin, and someone to infodump to, rather than a person in her own right.

It is, in other words, a story of its time. On this foundation, much better books have been raised.

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Saturday, 14 February 2015

Review: Bad Wizard

Bad Wizard
Bad Wizard by James Maxey

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It's just as well that I didn't remember until I finished this book that I'd previously read the author's [b:Nobody Gets the Girl|397756|Nobody Gets the Girl (Whoosh! Bam! Pow!, #1)|James Maxey||387219], and heartily disliked it for its dark and cynical tone. That would have prevented me from reading this one, which wasn't like that to nearly the same extent, and which I enjoyed.

There are a few reimaginings of Oz around these days. Wicked (the show and the book) and the movie Oz the Great and Powerful spring immediately to mind, and there's also been an anthology of short stories. This one, although it includes characters from the second book (Princess Ozma, the witch Mombi and, by reference, Jack Pumpkinhead), basically starts from the first book of the long series, the one everyone knows because of the classic movie, and considers only it to be "canon".

About a decade after the events of [b:The Wonderful Wizard of Oz|236093|The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (Oz, #1)|L. Frank Baum||1993810], Dorothy is working on a newspaper, trying to expose the Wizard, Oscar Diggs, who has risen to be US Secretary of War under President Teddy Roosevelt and is using his position, his personal wealth, and his flim-flam to assemble a force loyal directly to him which can invade Oz by zeppelin. (This gets the book referred to as "steampunk". Even though we see airships and a steam-powered exoskeleton, though, it doesn't have much of a steampunk feel to me.)

I liked the fact that two of the characters have completely incompatible world views. Esau, known as the Flying Monkey because he's a hairy man who performs an aerial act, is a devout Christian; Dorothy, disturbed and disillusioned by her youthful experiences, is a principled atheist. They manage to work together with a minimum of argument, united by their conviction that Diggs must be stopped from regaining power in Oz. That neither one is depicted as "right" while the other is "wrong" shows a restraint in the insertion of authorial personal philosophy that isn't, sadly, all that common.

Something I didn't like is that Dorothy's late fiance (who she once refers to, in an apparent continuity error, as having been her husband) is the exact male equivalent of a Woman in a Refrigerator: a character who exists only so that their death can motivate the protagonist, not as an actor in their own right. I see no reason why swapping the genders would make this trope OK, though doing it to a woman, that is, a member of a group often already deprotagonised, is worse.

Apart from a few words missing from their sentences and a couple that are misused ("enormity" for "enormousness" and "adverse" for "averse"), the editing is good, and it very nearly made my "well-edited" shelf.

Overall, apart from the Man in a Refrigerator, this was a well-motivated, well-plotted tribute to the Oz stories, and enjoyable as an old-style adventure quite apart from its literary origins.

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Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Review: John Golden: Freelance Debugger

John Golden: Freelance Debugger
John Golden: Freelance Debugger by Django Wexler

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I got this book as a kind of palate-cleanser, a bit of light entertainment between heavier books.

That's exactly what it was. Light, somewhat amusing, entertaining, clever, well-edited. A mashup of cyberpunk and urban fantasy that works in its own terms.

No real depth to it, but since that's what I was looking for I can hardly ding it for that. I did find the use of footnotes for the narrator's cybernetic sister's alternative views on the events didn't work all that well in the ebook format. It was a good idea, but I thought executing it in a different way would have worked better.

I won't necessarily be rushing out to get the next one. I read part of the sample before I realised it wasn't the first and switched to this book instead, and the impression I have is that it's more of the same. When I'm in the mood for something light and easy, though, this series provides a good option.

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Sunday, 8 February 2015

Review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane

The Ocean at the End of the Lane
The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There are two pieces of writing advice that are commonly given and that most writing instructors would find uncontroversial. First, using the verb "to be" in sentences of the pattern "the X was Y" produces weak, passive writing; far better to have the X doing something than being something. And second, you must name your viewpoint character early in the story, especially if they are also the narrator, in order for the audience to identify with them.

This book cheerfully shatters both of those rules and strides on without looking back. In fact, nobody in the narrator's family has a name. The three parts of the triple goddess have names, though they are presumably not their true names, and the antagonist has one, which is definitely not its true name. Even the narrator's original black kitten never gets a name, or a gender. Nevertheless, the kitten has great emotional weight and significance.

I don't know how Neil Gaiman does what he does; if I did, I would be doing it. But however he does it, it's not by following the rules.

If I can make a guess, it's that he takes the ordinary and the human, and he meshes it with the mythic, so perfectly that we can't see the seams, like the robe that the grandmother sews in this story. He has experienced his own inner life very intensely, and he has read very widely, and he sees each of those things in terms of the other, and then describes it so evocatively and with such a flawless ear for the music of language that we glimpse some of it too. Especially those of us who have intense inner lives, and have read widely, because we connect to his images - even the ones we only half-recognise.

As the narrator says, though, even he doesn't know how to talk about what he does. "If I could talk about it, I would not have to do it."

A beautiful, haunting story, from an author at the height of his considerable powers. For that reason, not to be attempted lightly. I definitely need to read something unchallenging afterwards, as a palate-cleanser.

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Friday, 6 February 2015

Review: Phoebe Pope and the Year of Four

Phoebe Pope and the Year of Four
Phoebe Pope and the Year of Four by Nya Jade

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

OK, let's line up the tropes first.

Protagonist is a Chosen One of Prophecy. Probably.
Ridiculously hot love interest has green eyes. (Seriously, can we stop that?) Is also possibly dangerous and definitely mysterious. Keeps rescuing the protagonist (sigh), because she heads off into known danger with no plan (eyeroll).
Convenient Eavesdrops.
Can defeat someone bigger and nastier, at least briefly, because of a week's martial arts training.
Half-hearted attempt at a love triangle.

The thing is, despite this parade of YA-fantasy cliches, I enjoyed it and looked forward to spending time reading it. There was freshness in the worldbuilding, the characters were likeable, and the protagonist managed to have agency despite her occasional Damsel in Distress moments.

I liked the fact that the vampire-like characters were also a kind of shapeshifter, rather than more traditional vampires. I liked the imagination that the author showed in general, and the way she set up the situation. A second school disguised under an ordinary school? Brilliant. And you have to love a class called Tactical Bird Song.

For the first 50 pages, I also thought that this might end up on my Well-Edited shelf, but sadly, it seems those first chapters were polished a lot more carefully than the rest, and the standard slowly deteriorated. By the time I hit the last fifty pages, minor errors were coming thick and fast. Mostly comma misuse and mispunctuated dialog, but also "discrete" for "discreet".

Despite that, and the occasional cliche, I was entertained and, overall, impressed with this first novel. Even though I figured out the love interest's background early on, his agenda remained mysterious and a source of suspense until late in the book, and there's a fascinating hint that his unknown father may be... let's just say "significant". I'd buy a sequel, but I hope it would move past the cliches (the author is obviously capable of it) and be well edited all the way through.

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