Monday, 17 October 2016

Review: Goldenfire

Goldenfire Goldenfire by A.F.E. Smith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I gave the first book in this series five stars, and was eager for the second. Although I didn't enjoy it quite as much, for reasons I'll explore shortly, it's certainly very good and I don't hesitate to recommend it.

Once again, it was impeccably edited; I didn't notice a single error, which is vanishingly rare. I'm lucky if I find one or two books in a hundred where I don't see any errors at all.

The first book managed to juggle seven point-of-view characters, by my count; gave them all distinct arcs; and pulled it off successfully. It also successfully wound a mystery plot, three different romance plots, and a thriller plot closely together, and paid them all off at the end. This book, I felt, was less successful, in part because the characters and plots were not so tightly wound together.

There's still a mystery/thriller plot, which involves an assassin whose identity (and gender) is withheld from the reader for most of the book, with several candidates presented. I did eventually guess the correct one, but not until late in the story. Paradoxically, this single main plotline (with a couple of minor plots involving characters' relationships and some coming-of-age) feels more diffuse than the multiple plot threads in the first book - partly, perhaps, because one of the participants is physically distant, out of the city that was the setting of everything in the first book, and with not much communication with the other viewpoint characters.

Of the seven viewpoint characters in the first book, two are now dead; one doesn't figure in this book (a pity, because I liked her, but I can see where she wasn't needed for this plot); one is still a significant character, but not a viewpoint character' and the remaining three still have viewpoints. In addition, there's the viewpoint of the assassin, and a group of trainees for the Helm elite guard, of whom, by my count, four are major characters, and two of those have viewpoints. There's also another viewpoint character, the training master, who appeared in a minor role in the first book, and another important character, the training master's partner, who doesn't have a viewpoint (mainly in order to preserve the mystery about who the assassin is). So, unless I've miscounted, still seven viewpoint characters, plus four other characters whose actions are significant to the plot but whose viewpoints we don't see into. True, one is the assassin, whose viewpoint we do see, but we don't find out which one until late, so that character almost counts as two: the assassin, who we hear from, but with minimal depth of information in order to preserve the mystery; and the assassin's cover persona, who we only see through the eyes of other characters.

Unlike the first book, where each character had a very different arc, here two of the ten important characters have very similar motivations, though they do resolve them differently.

Having more characters, some of whom don't have viewpoints, some of whom don't have much direct interaction with the others, and two of whom are very similarly motivated, yielded, for me, a less involving story than the first book, where we had deeper insight into a smaller number of characters, all of whose motivations and choices centred around a single set of events from different angles. I can see how this setup was necessary in order to create the mystery around the assassin's identity and provide some red herrings, and that was well done, but I still enjoyed it a little less.

I'm still keen for the third book, and glad to hear that it's now with the publisher. I'll be watching for it to come out.

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Monday, 10 October 2016

Review: A Christmas Gone Perfectly Wrong

A Christmas Gone Perfectly Wrong A Christmas Gone Perfectly Wrong by Cecilia Grant
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I've started reading some romance as preparation for writing it, and found this recommended on a blog - one about feminist romance, I believe. It's very well executed, tightly plotted, and almost flawlessly edited.

Since the setting is Regency England, "feminist" consists of "determined young woman defies social convention and insists on having a voice." This is well done, and I found it believable; the heroine's father, who raised her alone, is something of an eccentric philosopher, paving the way for her to be both naive about society and not strongly inculcated with its norms. Yet she's not a headstrong, egotistical princess; her defiance of convention is always on pragmatic grounds, and well argued. I would call this book an example of male-positive feminism, too, in that (while highlighting that many men are not like this) the hero is respectful of women in general and the heroine in particular, and treats her well throughout. His arc is to loosen up and be more pragmatic and less of a prig, and to consider what he wants as well as what is expected of him; he's neither a brute nor an idiot, something I appreciate in a male romance character.

This is a novella. Sometimes, novellas are novels that haven't been developed enough; other times, they're short stories that have been excessively padded. This is neither. It's a novella because it's executed without a word, a scene, a description or an incident being wasted. Everything is tightly woven together; even the falcon does double duty, as the reason why the hero is at the heroine's house in the first place and as an effective symbol which helps the main characters think about their situation.

Their musings, and the way their thinking about themselves and each other evolves through a series of misadventures, helped to push my rating to five stars, which I don't grant lightly; I only give it to books that are both well executed and also have some depth, and this one qualifies. Without bogging down the plot - indeed, as an essential part of the plot - the characters reflect in quite a profound way about what makes a foundation for a good relationship, and come to good conclusions.

I noticed one single editing mistake (the average number of errors I notice in a book, indie or trad-pub, is about two dozen), and it was a missing quotation mark at about the 72% mark.

Overall, a fine effort, and I'll be looking into the author's other books.

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Friday, 7 October 2016

Review: Darkhaven

Darkhaven Darkhaven by A.F.E. Smith
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Impeccably edited, masterfully plotted - with not one, not two, but three romance subplots; a mystery; intrigue; and some strong thriller elements, all in a lightly sketched but effective early-steampunkish secondary-world fantasy setting. With shifters. And not your usual wolves, either, but wyverns, alicorns and other wondrous beasties.

First, let's talk about the editing. As a copy editor myself, I notice editing errors, and HarperCollins' books are usually full of them. In this, I didn't notice a single one. I suspect that has a lot to do with the author being an editor in her day job, but regardless of the reason, it's rare, and commendable.

The characters are well drawn: conflicted, flawed, sometimes obsessive, but mostly wanting to do the right thing (the exception is an excellently depicted, scarily effective, and believable villain). All seven viewpoint characters have strong, and contrasting, arcs. The plot, with its many moving parts, fits together beautifully, and the author isn't afraid to mix tragic and happy endings. The book both brings all of the threads to a conclusion and sets up the dominoes for a sequel, which I suspect may take place a generation later. And which I will definitely be looking forward to buying, by the way.

The setting isn't especially prominent; it's early industrial age, with coal-powered trams and factories, but guns are new, foreign, and rare. It's mostly background, but what there is of it is sketched competently, and there's plenty of space for development. The shifter parts have great sensawunda as well as a darker, more threatening aspect that helps to drive the plot.

All in all, highly recommended, both for its excellent craft and its compelling story.

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