Pisces of Fate by Paul Mannering
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I enjoyed the first in this series, despite the silly names, so I looked forward to reading this one. There's plenty of good stuff in it - comedy, adventure, a little bit of musing about what makes life worthwhile - but ultimately I felt it muffed the ending and didn't quite live up to its promise.
Partly, I think, this is because the protagonist, Ascott Pudding, is one of those directionless losers that you get sometimes as the protagonists of comic fantasy (Tom Holt comes to mind, and Terry Pratchett's Rincewind), and that means that he never really settles on a clear goal. Is he trying to complete his book on sea life? Well, sort of, but when (view spoiler)[ his manuscript is destroyed (hide spoiler)] it doesn't upset him for very long, and he abandons that life work (which was really a way of not facing his issues anyway). Is he setting out to build a romantic relationship with the competent Shoal Smith? Well, a bit, but he's so pusillanimous about it (and she, understandably, is so lacking in keenness on the idea) that it never really goes anywhere, just serves as a source of tension and embarrassment. Is he trying to save his friend the parrot? Definitely, and he risks his life to do so - a decision that I felt wasn't adequately motivated, and somewhat out of character for someone so lacking in physical courage or ability. But that (authentically exciting) moment is soon over, and there's still plenty of book to go.
So is he trying to find the pirate treasure? He is, using the nonsensical argument that the villains will pursue him and Shoal as long as they think they're hiding something, so the obvious thing to do is find the treasure first and... hide it. But when (view spoiler)[ they finally do find the treasure, they're more witnesses to the denouement than drivers of it, despite taking definite, proactive steps to resolve the situation up to that point (hide spoiler)]. He's also, a bit, trying to find a way to save his sister Charlotte, even though they're not close; trying to figure out what is going on with all the gods, including the one who keeps dropping in at odd moments, occasionally as if out of a machine; and pursuing various minor, scene-level goals, such as not being killed by a highly intelligent octopus(view spoiler)[ who, when he has Ascott unconscious, apparently just changes his mind, or was kidding the whole time, and saves him instead (hide spoiler)]. But none of these goals (except the octopus one, briefly) drive him very strongly. Overall, he just isn't a very focussed or effective character, and I think that was the book's ultimate weakness. There are plenty of good elements - pirate treasure, the intelligent octopus, an intelligent parrot, apparently intelligent cats (who don't end up being important to the plot), a race across the backs of whales, a mystery, the meaning of life. For me, though, they didn't completely gel together into a fully successful book at the end.
Another round of copy editing also wouldn't go amiss; nothing major, but a number of "let's eat Grandma" errors (missing commas before terms of address), and a few other bits of slightly misplaced punctuation, including the dreaded interrobang. At one point, the text talks about a "brace of hairy fellas" and then, in the next sentence, about "some of" these fellas; a "brace" means two. There's also the occasional typo, about the usual number.
Overall, I'm still giving it four stars, because there was plenty of good material and I did enjoy it. I just thought it had some room to be a better book than it ultimately was.
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