Friday, 22 April 2016

Review: Funny Fantasy

Funny Fantasy Funny Fantasy by Alex Shvartsman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read a pre-release version of this collection, supplied by the publisher for beta reading purposes.

There's not enough truly funny fantasy around, and I applaud Alex Shvartsman for wanting to increase the prominence of the subgenre, not only by what he writes himself but by his work as an editor. Not only does he edit the Unidentified Funny Objects anthologies of new humorous SFF, but he's now started collecting previously published works (which did not appear in UFO) as well, and this volume is one of those collections.

I'm a tough audience for comedy, and look for something more than just a parody of the usual tropes with a few silly names thrown in. By and large, the stories in this volume provided that something more, with stories that worked as stories as well as being funny. I was particularly delighted to see an example of "Runyonesque," a style of which I'm very fond, in Mike Resnick's "A Very Special Girl". (Someone should really do an anthology of Runyonesque. There was a lovely one from Maria Dahvana Headley last year, and I've read several others.)

The tone of the stories covers the usual range, from full of casual mayhem (most notably Jim C. Hines, "The Blue Corpse Corps") to sweet and warm (Gail Carriger's "Fairy Debt"); from really just playing with the tropes, but doing it well (Laura Resnick's "Dave the Mighty Steel-Thewed Avenger") to more original (“Librarians in the Branch Library of Babel,” by Shaenon K. Garrity; “The Queen's Reason” by Richard Parks).

The editor notes in his introduction that, in his experience, funny science fiction tends to be social satire, while funny fantasy plays with the genre tropes more. I don't know that this is necessarily true (even in this collection, there's some strong social satire in Tim Pratt's "Another End of the Empire"); I think the best of both funny SF and funny fantasy do both, and also tell a compelling story. I'm talking, of course, about Douglas Adams and, even more so, Terry Pratchett. Perhaps part of the problem is that when a story also has great character development and a well-thought-out plot we usually don't banish it to the "funny" ghetto, but consider it a fantasy or SF novel with a strong humour element. I'm thinking here of authors like Connie Willis.

All this to say that, though I didn't find any of these stories hilarious, or groundbreaking, or outstanding examples of the fantasy genre, I did enjoy them. I would like to see the standard for funny fantasy gradually ratchet up, though, and become more than having fun with genre tropes, and some, though by no means all, of the stories in this collection do attempt that.

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Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Review: Year's Best SF

Year's Best SF Year's Best SF by David G. Hartwell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The first of a distinguished series. While I enjoyed most of the stories, now that I sit down to write the review I realise that I don't remember many of them, and I only finished it the other day.

The novella Hot Times in Magma City by Robert Silverberg is one of the memorable ones. While the premise is unlikely - people in a recovery program acting as emergency responders, as part of their community service in a Los Angeles wracked with volcanic activity - it's a powerful story. Told from the viewpoint of the group's leader, it shows the addicts trying to pull themselves together as they meet the challenges of their task, and more or less succeeding.

"Downloading Midnight", by William Browning Spencer, an author I haven't encountered before as far as I remember, is a cyberpunk novelette with a noir feel. It suffers from one of the usual issues with cyberpunk - the difficulty of explaining why people in cyberspace are in any actual danger - but manages to handwave it adequately and tell a good human story.

"Coming of Age in Karhide", by Ursula K. Le Guin, is the only one in the volume I remember reading before (in the author's collected short fiction, I think). It's one of her mind-stretching ones, set in the same world as The Left Hand of Darkness (where people periodically change gender), and very much a "this is what it's like to grow up in this setting" piece rather than a strongly plotted, linear story. Such is Le Guin's mastery of style and ability to convey feeling that it works anyway.

The remaining story in the volume that I can remember without looking at the book is the novella The Ziggurat, by Gene Wolfe. I'm on record as saying that I seldom understand or like Wolfe's stories, but maybe I'm getting used to them; I didn't hate this, and I followed it pretty well. The problem I have with Wolfe, though, is that his characters always seem alienated from their emotions, and while they will act from emotional reasons, they never seem to express emotions clearly or have emotional self-insight. Also, their actions sometimes seem alien and creepy, partly because of this emotional disconnect; violence comes as if out of nowhere, or, as here, a man decides, seemingly unilaterally, that he and a woman who has been his enemy are going to have a relationship, despite the earlier death-dealing violence between her group and his. It's as if all his characters are somewhere on the autism spectrum, or as if I am (which I'm not) whenever I read a Wolfe story.

Since I picked this up for 99c, I wasn't disappointed, but later volumes had a higher proportion of memorable stories.

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Monday, 11 April 2016

Review: The Indestructibles

The Indestructibles The Indestructibles by Matthew Phillion
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If this had been well edited, it would have got a fourth star and I probably would have bought the sequel. It's an engaging, though by no means groundbreaking, YA supers story. But the author has a lot to learn about the mechanics of prose.

Specifically, he needs to learn:

1. Where to use, and where not to use, a comma. In particular, not to use a comma to splice together what should be two separate sentences (this happens over and over, as do various other comma issues).

2. How to use the past perfect tense when referring to something that happened prior to the "narrative moment". Every time I hit a sentence like "Billy wished Jane came to that conclusion earlier" (instead of "had come to that conclusion"), it disoriented me. This also happened frequently.

3. The difference between breaks and brakes, effected and affected, enormity and enormousness, site and sight, waved and waived, breath and breathe, fallout and falling out, definitive and definite, queue and cue, canon and cannon, held true and held firm, and (in one case each) they're and their and it's and its. Also the meaning of a few other words, such as "refuted", "guise", "corralling", "clamored", "begrudge" and "proffered", which are all used to mean something other than what those words usually mean.

4. To always use a question mark when someone is asking a question.

There are occasional missing words, and problems with verb tense or number, but I think these are just typos, not lack of knowledge of the correct way to write the sentence.

A couple of the characters were less original than I would have preferred. One was solar-powered, and after being orphaned and rescued from a crashed vehicle had been raised to be a straight arrow by a good-hearted farming couple. She could fly and was invulnerable to harm. The other had no superpowers, but had achieved everything by grim grit and determination to be better. She was an orphan, lurked in the shadows, was the member of the team nominated by their mentor to develop a plan to take the others down if they went off the rails, and was given a grapple gun and a number of other devices by one of the team's mentors. The remaining team members were more original, but those two just had too many obvious parallels to their models.

There are formatting issues, as well, with inconsistent indents for the paragraphs. All in all, it's not ready for prime time.

That's a pity, because the story itself is good, and the characters are appealing. If the issues I've mentioned above make no difference to you, or you think you won't notice them, by all means pick it up and be entertained.

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