Monday, 29 August 2016

Review: Break the Chains

Break the Chains Break the Chains by Megan E. O'Keefe
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Some authors need a lot of editing, and, judging from the pre-release version I read (and the first in the series, which I also read before its release), this author is one of those. I hope she gets it, because underneath a great many vocabulary fumbles and some comma and tense mistakes, there's a well-told story here. At the same time, I didn't feel as engaged in this book as I did with the previous one, and I'm struggling to put my finger on exactly why.

The protagonists have clear goals, which they pursue determinedly and at cost, against fit opposition. This would normally make for a compelling story, but I wasn't quite compelled. Perhaps I was looking for the characters to succeed a little more frequently in making progress towards their goals, though they do succeed occasionally.

Could it be that the two main viewpoint characters are separated throughout the book, so we keep switching from one to the other, and they never actually appear in a scene together (even when they're in almost the same place)? That may be part of it. I seem to remember that they were separate for much of Book 1, but they did join up partway through that book and have some interaction. Here, they don't interact at all with each other. Each one has a sidekick to talk to, although of the two sidekicks, only Tibs is really developed much, and his role is mainly to insult his friend in order to keep him mentally stable. Otherwise, the sidekicks don't contribute very much to the plot that any other generic character in the same situation couldn't contribute, and this seems like a lost opportunity.

Then, too, we don't have an onstage villain through most of the story, either. While the viewpoint characters face opposition, much of it is circumstantial, or from people who have somewhat adjacent, rather than opposing, agendas, and who either become or could become allies. The first book had a strong onstage villain with her own clear agenda, in opposition to the heroes', and that, I think, made it more engaging.

I liked this (setting aside the many failures of vocabulary, which, as I say, hopefully will be fixed); but I didn't love it, and I'm not sure I'll pick up the sequel. It's a story with a lot of potential, but I didn't feel that potential was fully realised.

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Monday, 15 August 2016

Review: Cold-Forged Flame

Cold-Forged Flame Cold-Forged Flame by Marie Brennan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I much enjoyed this author's A Natural History of Dragons, which some people found dull. This is not dull. It's a fast-moving novella with plenty of action and conflict.

The plot is straightforward and doesn't break new ground (fetch quest with obstacles to overcome), and it begins with amnesia. Neither of these things are promising on the face of it. Main-character amnesia, in particular, is a cliche start, and is sometimes an inexperienced author's way of dealing with the fact that they don't know who their character is either. In the hands of an experienced author like this one, though (or like Roger Zelazny, who pulled it off wonderfully in Nine Princes in Amber), it can work, and here it did, for me.

Even though none of the individual elements shows us anything new, they're executed so well that I still enjoyed it. In particular, I liked the defiant punk-rock attitude of the main character, which elevated her from an amnesiac blank slate/standard-issue kickass warrior chick to someone I wanted to cheer for. When faced with decisions, she considers carefully and chooses well and bravely, for clear reasons.

Overall, then, proof that you don't have to innovate to craft an enjoyable story, though I would have preferred more innovation, on the whole.

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Review: Spirit's End

Spirit's End Spirit's End by Rachel Aaron
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've complained in previous reviews of books in this series about the sudden left turn it took in (I think) Book 3, where the fun, exuberant heists and cons were abruptly converted into serious epic fantasy with cosmic stakes. I'm still annoyed by that. It's a good serious epic fantasy with cosmic stakes, but I didn't originally pick it up as that; I wanted fun heists.

Anyway, in this book, the serious epic fantasy with cosmic stakes comes to a great conclusion, well worth staying around for - and well worth pressing through the first part of the book, which, for me, felt less engaging than it eventually became later on. I think this was partly because it's been a long pause for me between Book 4 and Book 5, entirely because of the publisher's pricing policy (I was waiting for it to come down into the range that I'm prepared to pay for an ebook), and it took me a while to remember who all the characters were and their backstory.

One reason that I wasn't prepared to pay more for a trad-pub ebook is that these particular books aren't actually better edited than many indies (in fact, aren't as well edited as a lot of indies). There's nothing truly awful, but the author apparently doesn't know the coordinate comma rule, especially as applied to numbers, and either the editor doesn't know it either or has missed a great many. Likewise with homonyms (flare/flair, sometime/some time, sheaf/sheet, harrier/hairier, shown/shone, lest/unless, breaking/braking, principals/principles, leached/leeched - those last two are often hard to distinguish, but in this case it clearly should be "leeched"). The Restricted Archives become the Restrictive Archives two sentences later, and there are a few apostrophe errors, mostly with plurals. "Millennia" is used as the singular. I've seen far worse, but I've also seen a lot better, and would expect more from Orbit/Hachette.

However, those occasional issues, and my lingering annoyance at the genre switch-up, didn't prevent me from thoroughly enjoying the last part of the book. I was lucky enough to have leisure to read it at one sitting, which is exactly the way to read it. It takes the determination of the characters that's been established previously and shows them using that determination, and their various abilities (including, happily, Eli's cunning as a con-man) to resolve an apparently unresolvable and increasingly desperate situation. These are people who will do the right thing at any cost, which is the kind of character I like to read about; they're also ingenious, committed to one another, and prepared to set aside their personal conflicts for the greater good.

My overall verdict on the series is that, despite its disorienting shift of tone partway through and the less-than-fully-polished editing, it's thoroughly enjoyable and well worth reading.

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Thursday, 11 August 2016

Review: Ancillary Mercy

Ancillary Mercy Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It's hard to measure up to the amazing first book of this series, mainly because, in the sequels, the things that made the first one astonishing are no longer completely new. Still, it continues to be wonderful, doing extremely clever things with point of view that are only possible because of the speculative setting.

Something I didn't feel as much in this third book is the deliberately induced cognitive dissonance of the Raadchai language only using female pronouns, and not considering gender as a significant category in social interaction. I'm not sure whether this was a function of familiarity and adaptation on my part, or a difference in the writing, or a combination, but I found that I'd defaulted to assuming everyone was male, despite the pronouns - not ideal, but that's how my brain seems to have worked. YMMV.

The story itself is one of those beautifully layered, in some ways slow-moving stories that doesn't feel the need to insert conflict into every scene. There is certainly conflict, but this is far from being a thriller. I'm personally comfortable with that, but it won't be to everyone's taste; if it's not to your taste, though, you will have given up on the first book without ever getting near this one.

The book is structured more by an unfolding of meaning than by a traditional plot, too. Events occur and are linked together; you could write down a plot summary; but the real structure (IMO) is the emergence of theme, and the theme centres around independence, interdependence, love, trust, and power. Power has been a theme throughout the trilogy, and here the questions are made explicit: Do you hand power to the person who has demonstrated that they are only interested in how you can be useful to them, or to the person who has demonstrated that they are always interested in your wellbeing? (And what is a person, exactly?) This is shown not only through the main plot, but also a couple of subplots.

It's a good theme, and well handled, and beautifully told, with depth and richness and a lot of intelligence. I'm going to give it the full five stars, even though it's not as amazing as the first book, because if I had encountered a book this good as a standalone I would have five-starred it.

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Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Review: Unidentified Funny Objects 5

Unidentified Funny Objects 5 Unidentified Funny Objects 5 by Alex Shvartsman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have a difficult relationship with funny SFF. As a Commonwealth citizen, I have more of a British than an American sense of humour, and a lot of "funny" SFF isn't necessarily as funny to me as it is to other people. Yet I always want to see more of it in the world.

I also believe that humorous stories should work as stories, even for someone who doesn't find them funny, and that doing some easy mockery of common tropes with a few silly names thrown in is not nearly enough. At the same time, I'm willing to excuse a few weaknesses in a story if it makes me laugh.

This collection runs the gamut, for me, from a few stories I felt didn't work especially well to a number of others that I enjoyed a good deal. I'll go through them one at a time, and give each one its own rating out of 10 and brief commentary. I'm well aware of how subjective humour is, and no doubt the stories which didn't work for me will be someone else's favourites, and vice versa.

7/10 "My Enemy, the Unicorn" (Bill Ferris): cryptids in captivity scheming among themselves and against each other. Twisty enough to be enjoyable for that reason, and also with a trickster protagonist, which is generally a plus for me.

6/10 "The Trouble With Hairy" (David Gerrold): exhibits a fault that I've seen a few times in comedic SFF, which is that it's almost entirely in "tell" mode. There's very little dialog, and while there are some named characters, we're told rather than shown what they do. The story itself, about a "solution" to LA's traffic woes, is absurd, but in mostly a good way, and enjoyably told; but "told" is exactly what it is, and that loses it some points.

7/10 "B.U.M.P. in the Knight" (Esther Friesner): Friesner is one of my favourite American SFF humourists. Her stories mostly play with the tropes, but she does it very well, and this is no exception; princesses and dragons scheme against knights, and come up with a clever solution to a pressing problem.

8/10 "If I Could Give This Time Machine Zero Stars, I Would" (James Wesley Rogers): simultaneously a clever time travel story and an effective parody of online consumer reviews. Either one of those elements could easily have failed (I've seen both done poorly), but in this story, neither one did.

5/10 "The Pi Files" (Laura Resnick): for me, Laura Resnick's pieces can tend to be a bit too much playing with tropes and silly names, and not quite enough fresh, effective story, and this is an example. Trying to cram the X-Files, Doctor Who, Star Wars, Star Trek, 2001, and, for some reason, Casablanca all into one story was probably too much, and left all of the elements underdeveloped. A bit reminiscent of Mad Magazine, because of the silly names, and I never did find that style funny.

8/10 "Prophet Margins" (Zach Shephard): this is an example of a story that works as a story first, and is secondarily funny, and none the worse for that. It's relatively fresh, with worldbuilding I hadn't seen before (different methods of predicting the future), and also charming. The terrible jokes that one of the characters tells are truly awful, but they're supposed to be.

7/10 "The Deliverable" (Shaenon K. Garrity): told in emails, this story parodies startup culture and the multiplication of coffee shops in the San Francisco Bay Area. Parodies of a current phenomenon can easily go sideways, as can the epistolary style, but this one is well executed, bringing out distinct characters who are both individuals and recognisable types, and telling an apocalyptic story in the process. Perhaps had one or two more characters than it strictly needed, because I found myself losing track of them at one point.

7/10 "The Mayoral Stakes" (Mike Resnick): a Runyonesque, one of my personal favourite story styles, with the same main character as the author's story in the Funny Fantasy anthology I reviewed not long ago. I didn't feel that this story was quite as good as that one, somehow; it perhaps would have benefited from a reduction in characters and a bit of streamlining in the first third, but it's still an enjoyable tale of betting on, and manipulating, New York mayoral elections.

6/10 "Rude Mechanicals" (Jody Lynn Nye): works both as a police-procedural murder mystery and an SF story involving aliens and AIs. However, I didn't find it outstandingly funny, and the style was somehow flat for me.

7/10 "Kaylee the Huntress" (Tim Pratt): the thoroughly dislikable protagonist (a spoiled "mean girl" type) lowers the mark I'm giving this one. It's a clever premise - she accidentally becomes a supernatural huntress and has to deal with the consequences - and well written, but I just disliked her so much. Which I was supposed to, but still.

5/10: "Best Chef Season Three: Tau Ceti E" (Caroline M. Yoachim): one kind of "funny" story I tend to dislike is one in which terrible things happen but the tone is kept light, never acknowledging the horror in the slightest. This is one such. That conflict between dark deeds and a light tone just isn't a thing I enjoy much. Other stories in this book have dark deeds, but manage to work for me because they give at least some acknowledgement to how people would really feel about them. The premise of a cooking reality show run by aliens is a fairly obvious one, too, and I didn't feel that the author took it anywhere truly creative.

8/10: "Won't You Please Give One of These Species-Planets a Second Chance?" (Nathan Hillstrom): an amusing mashup of two ideas, "powerful aliens rescue/threaten Earth" and "shelter pet adoption". The teenager who knows how to manipulate people into adopting pets is wonderful.

7/10: "Fantastic Coverage" (Mitchell Shanklin): something that "funny fantasy" anthologies tend to get a lot of is parodies of aspects, especially frustrating aspects, of contemporary life with a tropish science-fictional or fantastic overlay, and here we have an insurance claims agent whose job is to find loopholes and deny payouts in cases of fantastical disaster. It could easily be weak, but it's well executed and has a fun twist at the end.

7/10: "Mistaken Identity" (Daniel J. Davis): what it's like to be mistakenly targeted by a costumed vigilante. The comedy of errors for the hapless protagonist escalates amusingly.

7/10: "Customer Service Hobgoblin" (Paul R. Hardy): one of the commonest topics for funny fantasy stories is the supernatural helpline, and it's a story idea that is pretty well mined out by this point. Not completely, though, as this story proves, with its trickster protagonist and twisty plot.

6/10: "The Lesser of Two Evils" (Shane Halbach): likewise, the "IT is really magic/demons" idea must be close to getting its retirement gift, giant novelty card and generic congratulatory message from the CEO by now. This story doesn't take it in any startlingly new direction, though it's well enough executed.

7/10: "Appointment at Titlanitza" (Fred Stesney): noir detective with a Mexican setting and an ancient aliens theme. Some absurd moments amused me, which boosted the rating.

5/10: "The Problem with Poofs" (Gini Koch): to me, this stumbled, mostly because unnecessarily large numbers of characters were introduced in batches, meaning that by the time they did anything I'd forgotten which character went with which name. Also, I didn't find it especially funny. The title is an obvious reference to the Star Trek episode "The Trouble with Tribbles," - and, indeed, a lot of the story feels generically Trekkish - but the tribble-like poofs of the title are never actually a problem, only a solution. Otherwise, it's a fairly standard story of human exceptionalism among alien races (which are all unimaginatively based on Earth creatures), with not enough to the plot to rescue it from its other faults. A disappointing close to what was, on average, a good collection.

Disclosures: I received a review copy from the editor, who is an online acquaintance. I also submitted stories to this anthology, and previous UFO anthologies, unsuccessfully.

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