Sunday, 12 November 2017

Review: The Wrong Stars

The Wrong Stars The Wrong Stars by Tim Pratt
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was a lot of fun, and also has a subtle point to make about abuse and what it leads to (without getting super-graphic).

I don't read much space opera anymore, mainly because so much of it is military, and that doesn't especially interest me. This, however, is more of a classic old-school space opera, suitably updated for today.

The author doesn't have a particularly firm grasp on astrophysics and how acceleration, deceleration, spin, and gravity work, and the book does exhibit the genre trope where somehow thirty or forty years' worth of technological and social change, and apparently no new cultural creations, have been crammed into several centuries; but I can overlook those issues for the sake of a gripping plot, a great ensemble cast, and sparkling banter. Banter such as:

"Have I told you lately that I'm a genius?"
"I'm not sure. I don't usually listen when you talk."

Rather than the usual ragtag freighter crew skirting the edges of the law, possibly from the outside of it, we have here a group of what are more-or-less law enforcement contractors - think something between corporate security, bounty hunters/skip-tracers, and deputized civilians, with just a touch of Judge Dredd. This is a good variation on a classic formula, and drives parts of the plot satisfactorily.

There are aliens, but only one kind (or so the characters initially believe) - the Liars, squidlike beings so called because you can't trust anything they say about their origins, their history, their agenda, or even what they were doing this morning. The plot that unfolds is cosmic in its implications, with a nod to Mythos, among other sources, but remains at the intimate level of a couple of ships' crews.

Speaking of intimate, if lesbian romance is a problem for you, or characters of nonbinary gender, you're probably going to want to skip this one (unless you need to feed your outrage, I suppose - I don't know what goes on in your head). It doesn't get explicit, though.

There's plenty of adventure, varied and entertaining, and the author is highly capable and assuredly in control of his material. I thoroughly enjoyed his urban fantasy Heirs of Grace, which took a genre that's been feeling mined out and flooded with bad copies and made it fresh, interesting, and intelligent again. That's why I picked this one up, and I wasn't disappointed; he does the same for space opera, giving us a book that's both richly entertaining and also has a bit of depth and weight to it.

Fans of L.J. Cohen and Ann Leckie are likely to enjoy this one.

I received a review copy via Netgalley.

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Thursday, 9 November 2017

Review: Toru: Wayfarer Returns

Toru: Wayfarer Returns Toru: Wayfarer Returns by Stephanie R. Sorensen
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I'm going to start with what I learned from the author's afterword, and work backwards.

The author has been a foreign-exchange student in Japan, where (it seems) she was welcomed, treated with great hospitality, and came to love the country and its people. This is great, but it also leads to the main problem of the book.

The problem is that the author has then written what's essentially a wish-fulfillment fantasy about how great it would be if Japan had become that peaceful, hospitable, amiable country more or less directly from being a rigid, feudal despotism under the shoguns, without going through all the pain of the invasion by Commodore Perry's Black Fleet, the subsequent long and difficult process of modernization, and World War II.

Instead, she shows us - or, often, tells us about - a Japan in which a young man, sent clandestinely to America to spy and bring back its technology, is not executed on his return (as was the law) but convinces everyone - fearful peasants, harsh feudal lords, everyone - to modernize in an absurdly short space of time, leapfrogging American technology so that they can confront Perry on his arrival with a superior force.

I didn't believe it. I didn't believe (having worked on projects for 20 years) that such a major program could be completed so quickly; I didn't believe that an illiterate peasant blacksmith could become, first an engineer (maybe sort of believable), then a pilot, then captain of an airship, then admiral of the fleet; I didn't believe that someone we're told was a conservative old feudal lord would let his daughter dress and behave like a man just because she wanted to; I didn't believe that everyone would listen to a commoner; I didn't believe that the feudal lords would do away with their own power because of love for country; and I certainly didn't believe, though we were repeatedly told, that the heroes would be executed. That was the problem: there was a lot of telling, and what we were told contradicted, as often as not, what we were shown, and I didn't believe any of it. And then what we'd been told, over and over again, just ended up not being true, because it had to not be true or else the story would be tragic. And there was no believable reason why it wasn't true.

As a result, it barely squeaks three stars, and that's only because there's a good heart behind this unbelievable story, and I don't want to be harsh to it.

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Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Review: Starlight's Children

Starlight's Children Starlight's Children by Darian Smith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'll just say starting out: I usually don't find that books as essentially good-hearted as this one have such a high body count. But it definitely is noblebright, not grimdark, despite that, and well written to boot.

I very much enjoyed the first book in the series, which introduced the mashup of police procedural, secondary-world fantasy, and forensic thriller that continues in this one. The lead investigator, a former soldier who's trained as a physician in part as a way of atoning for the lives he took in the war, is intelligent, determined, and brave, and ably supported by a cast of secondary characters who manage to be morally complicated while still, mostly, people you can cheer for. Nobody is lily-white, but unlike in a grimdark fantasy, they haven't given up on becoming better people, or lost hope that they can do what's right.

The dialog and, to be honest, many of the social attitudes are modern rather than of the technological and social period of the setting, but that would be almost my only criticism. This is a good concept, well executed.

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Wednesday, 11 October 2017

Review: First Year

First Year First Year by Rachel E. Carter
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I hovered between three and four stars for this one. The premise - Hogwarts as merciless boot camp - ended up wearing a little thin. In a way, too, it was dropped right at the end, in what I felt was a bit of a gift to the heroine - not undeserved or unexpected, and yet it felt disappointing to me - a cheat.

The fact that the antagonist/love interest had a name that began with D and a father named Lucius made me suspect that the book began life as Harry Potter fanfiction; I may be wrong. It isn't very Potteresque, in the event, apart from the setting in a magic school. There's no whimsy or fun here, and it needed some.

The other thing it needed was a really good professional edit. The author credits an editor and five or six "proofers" in the acknowledgements, but there are still commas placed where no comma should ever, ever be, and repeated basic homonym errors like poured/pored, hoard/horde, and worst of all, shown/shone. The odd and awkward phrasings of many sentences had me wondering sometimes if the author spoke English as a first language.

Those frequent language errors were what, for me, tipped it over into three-star territory, along with the humourless tone and the frantically signalled setup for horrible tragedy later in the series. There wasn't a lot to counterbalance those issues, either; the setting and characters were pretty much by the numbers.

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Sunday, 1 October 2017

Review: Starlings

Starlings Starlings by Jo Walton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

By the author's own admission, several of the "short stories" in this book are not actually stories. They're exercises in mode, or jokes, or the attempts of someone who knows how novels work but not how short stories work to write a short story.

This doesn't sound promising, but Jo Walton is such a good writer that she mostly gets away with it in any case. In fact, some of the stories have been published in prestigious publications like Strange Horizons and Subterranean. Unfairly, I occasionally thought, "I wish I had the kind of standing in the SFF community that meant I could get published in those publications by writing a story that isn't a story," but that's not the only thing that's going on. Walton is a deep thinker, a close observer, and a master of language, and all these things shine through, even when her "story" is only an exploration of a clever idea with no real beginning, middle, or (especially) end.

"Three Twilight Tales," for example, the first piece, explores a small town that has remarkable magic, but the magic is a means to look at the people and their relationships. "Jane Austen to Cassandra" takes the idea that Jane Austen's letters to her friend and correspondent Cassandra go astray and reach Cassandra's original namesake, the prophetess who nobody believed. And are answered. "Unreliable Witness" is from the POV of an elderly woman with dementia who may or may not have encountered aliens. "On the Wall" is, as the author says, the beginning of a novel, a very different version of Snow White, from the perspective of the mirror, but because we know the original story we don't need the rest. This kind of implied narrative is something I'm interested in, taking advantage of the familiar tales to create resonance and tell a minimal story where the reader fills in what's missing.

"The Panda Coin" is SF, following a coin through a number of hands in a somewhat dystopic space station. "Remember the Allosaur" is a joke, but a beautifully written one. "Sleeper" I think I've read before somewhere (probably Tor.com, since it was published there, or in one of their collections); it's about a Russian sleeper agent in late-20th-century Britain whose consciousness is simulated by a researcher in a dystopian future. Like most of the others, it doesn't have an ending so much as imply a continuation.

"Relentlessly Mundane" is a consideration of the question "what do the kids do after they come back from the portal fantasy world and grow up?" It's an idea that's been tackled at greater length since by Seanan McGuire, but this is a good treatment.

"Escape to Other Worlds with Science Fiction" is a series of vignettes and pseudo-documents that build up a picture of an American dystopia (there's a bit of a theme going with the SF in this volume), in the old alternate-history-where-the-Nazis-won-WWII genre. Not as original an idea as some of the others, but well done.

"Joyful and Triumphant" is a meditation on the idea that each planet gets an Incarnation, in the "character explains as if to n00bs" mode. It's not a mode I think much of, and this is, for me, one of the weaker stories, though it's an interesting idea. Later in the volume, "What Would Sam Spade Do?" posits a world with multiple clones of Jesus, who have become a kind of ethnicity, and "What Joseph Felt" explores St Joseph's feelings around the Incarnation. "Out of It" is based on the Faust legend, so Christian mythology (if I can use the term) gets thoroughly inspected.

"Turnover" is a what-if-the-later-generations-in-the-generation-ship-don't-want-to-go-to-the-new-planet story. As it happens, I read a very similar story by Ursula Le Guin almost immediately afterwards ("Paradises Lost"), and comparing anyone else's story to a Le Guin is usually unfair to the other writer, but this one stands up reasonably well. The sense of place is well handled, in particular, and though it's another story with an "ending" that's more of an implication of future events to come, so is Le Guin's.

I won't mention all of the stories, just a couple more. "A Burden Shared" is set in a world where people can (through handwaved technology) shoulder one another's pain, featuring the mother of a woman with a chronic illness as the main character. As someone who lives with a person with a chronic illness, it rang true to me, and the theme of how caregivers (especially mothers) can neglect their own needs is an important one.

The other story, which is actually a play, is "Three Shouts on a Hill," an odd mishmash of Irish legend with bits and pieces from other times and places that's as much a meta-meditation on story as it is anything else.

Overall, then, this collection is proof that, if you're a good enough writer, you can write a successful piece of short fiction in a lot of different ways. Not all of the pieces are excellent or weighty, or even original, but those that are lift the average considerably.

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Monday, 18 September 2017

Review: The Censor's Hand

The Censor's Hand The Censor's Hand by A.M. Steiner
My rating: 0 of 5 stars

I stopped reading this twice.

The first time, at maybe 15%, I went off and read several other books. I didn't feel much desire to go back to it, but I wasn't hating it, so I gave it another go. In part, I wanted to figure out why it was that I didn't care about any of the characters, and give the author a chance to change that.

I got to 64% before I realised why it was that I didn't care, and at that point I stopped.

The narrative follows three loosely connected main characters. One is in financial trouble and about to lose the family business, which would mean his ill mother, his wife, and their baby would have no means of support. You'd think this would make me care about him, but he's so hapless and hopeless, and makes such bad decisions, that I never did. His family seems to be more of a constraint on his actions than people that he cares deeply about.

The second is the first character's brother. He's a competent fighter, and ambitious to clean up their old neighbourhood by becoming a Censor, a kind of lawman. Again, a laudable goal, and you'd think I'd care, but he fumbles around, not showing a lot of focus or competence, serving an obviously heartless organization which considers him a tool, and not a particularly valuable one.

The third character is a woman student - the first woman student - at a magical college, at which the second character is also a student as part of an undercover investigation. They become involved. So why didn't I care about a woman who's making her way in a man's world by being better than the male students? Normally I'd love that story, but this character is so nakedly ambitious, and so uncaring about anyone other than herself, that I had no sympathy for her goals.

And that was the overall problem, I think. Nobody combined competence with idealism; everyone was missing one or the other, and nobody had any noticeable compassion or empathy. Faced with a cast of characters who didn't much care about each other, I didn't care about them either, and stopped reading with no regrets.

I received a review copy via Netgalley.

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Review: Abounding Might

Abounding Might Abounding Might by Melissa McShane
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Melissa McShane crashes the superhero genre into Regency romance, by way of Napoleonic military adventure. The effect is... pleasing.

In part, it's pleasing because she has a sure hand on the wheel when it comes both to basic storytelling and the mechanics of grammar, punctuation, and word choice. There was nothing to distract or detract from my enjoyment of the characters, the plot, and the setting, and those elements were very well handled.

I much enjoyed the first in this series, Burning Bright, with a heroine who could control fire battling pirates in the early-19th-century Caribbean, and this volume is as good or better. Set in the British-dominated India of the East India Company during the Regency, it follows Lady Daphne, a teleporter ("Bounder") who is determined not to let her small stature or feminine nature prevent her from becoming famous for her skill. She lifts weights, since, to transport other people, she has to pick them up; and she chafes against, and often effectively circumvents, the restrictions imposed on her as a woman.

She does, at one point, make a less-than-sensible decision which leads to bad consequences, but it's a completely believable one (not just shoehorned in against character in order to complicate the plot), and she deals with the consequences with courage and determination. She's principled, intelligent, and in general exactly the kind of character I enjoy reading about. Her love interest, while perhaps a touch bland compared with her (since we're in her viewpoint throughout, we don't really get to see his inner life), is worthy and capable.

I wasn't sure I quite understood how the minor antagonist was disturbing the hero, though I do have a theory, which Daphne would realistically have been too naive to think of. Apart from that, everything was clear, and I didn't spot any plot holes or obvious historical gaffes.

A very sound effort, and I believe I'll pick up Book 2 and watch out for Book 4, if there is one. I received both Book 1 and Book 3 via Netgalley for purposes of review.

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Sunday, 3 September 2017

Review: Masked

Masked Masked by J.D. Wright
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I've been in the mood for superhero fiction lately, but it's hard to find good stuff. Most of it is poorly edited and not especially well executed, and I'm afraid this one isn't an exception.

At first it got the Randy Jackson reaction: It was just OK for me, you know, dogg? I could have overlooked most of the issues - even titanium not being a good conductor of electrical blasts, although the same electrical blasts were destroying creatures made of rock, and even the gradual drift from third person limited into more and more headhopping - but what dropped it down to three stars was the implausible stupidity of the characters.

So let's say you have important information about a wanted supervillain - who he is, that he's even still alive, that kind of thing. And let's say that this supervillain, if not stopped, is going to kill more people, like he already has several times. And let's say that you have contact with a highly effective organisation that has much better resources than you do, many trained agents with lots of experience, and you're a group of late-teenage supers just starting out. And you have no reason to expect that there will be any negative consequences to telling this organisation about this villain, who is, again, killing people and needs to be stopped.

What do you do? Well, of course you agree not to tell them, and to go after him yourselves, and none of you even questions that this is the right thing to do in the circumstances.

Nope, sorry. Blatant stupidity in the service of setting up a sequel gets your sequel left unread.

Apart from that, it was, as I say, OK. A bit more detail about the teenage sex than was needed, maybe, but generally average. There were two black characters, both of whom were tech wizards, which seems to often be the lot of black supers (think John Stewart, John Henry Irons, Cyborg and his father...). It's interesting how this trope, which theoretically is about black people being intelligent, in practice often works out as giving them a subsidiary, supporting role in which they're not expected to protagonise or to need a character arc (which is the case here).

Maybe that's improved upon in the next book. I'll never know, because that one moment of supreme stupidity put me off reading it.

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Monday, 7 August 2017

Review: The Thorn of Dentonhill

The Thorn of Dentonhill The Thorn of Dentonhill by Marshall Ryan Maresca
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

OK, fantasy authors, listen up. This is simple, but I see a lot of you getting it wrong - including this author.

The phases of the moon are caused by the angle between the moon and the sun.

This means that, if two moons are in the same part of the sky, they cannot be in different phases.

It's not even basic astronomy; it's basic geometry.

OK, with that out of the way: apart from the moon-phase error and the frequent absence of the past perfect tense (plus the usual number of minor typos and homonym errors), this was good. No better than plenty of much cheaper indie books, so I'm glad I waited until Penguin discounted it; but good, nevertheless.

A superherolike vigilante mage in a sword-and-sorcery setting, seeking revenge on a drug lord for what was done to his parents? Yes, please.

The protagonist is getting by on not enough sleep, getting beaten up and injured, overtaxing his magical strength, and he keeps promising himself and his concerned friends that he'll definitely rest up and heal, that he won't go out again the next night - and then something happens to raise the stakes, and his principles won't let him stand by, and he gets beaten up again and barely wins again and staggers back covered in blood, to vow that this time he'll look after himself...

It's a good way of maintaining tension, and setting it up so that the lone vigilante needs the help of those who care about him to triumph against the increasingly scary odds with higher and higher stakes. Good storytelling, in other words. Along the way, the secondary characters are developed and gain depth and individuality, as well as having their own character arcs.

There's only one female character, and she's a bit under-utilised, but not weak; though she does need rescuing, she also shows competence and ability in rescuing another character.

The Batman parallels are strong, but not excessive. Overall, solid work.

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Saturday, 5 August 2017

Review: Necrospect: Chronicles of the Wizard-Detective

Necrospect: Chronicles of the Wizard-Detective Necrospect: Chronicles of the Wizard-Detective by J.B. Markes
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Promising, with some impressive twists. The idea of a necromancer detective is good, and the characters were well developed, though the viewpoint character, to me, seemed insufficiently motivated for the sacrifices she made.

It does read as if the author's first language is not English; there are quite a few muddled idioms, plus the occasional incorrectly punctuated bit of dialog and a few missing words. I thought that referring to "the wizarding world" was a mistake; it immediately made me think of Harry Potter, and when you're setting a book in a magic academy, you should probably try not to evoke that comparison (particularly since there's not a lot of resemblance).

I did enjoy it, though, and I'd read another.

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Review: Sensation

Sensation Sensation by Kevin Hardman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a good piece of YA superhero fiction. The moral lines are clear, which personally I like, and the main character is on the right side of them - though he's justifiably angry, and messes up believably in the way that inexperienced young people do.

He's overpowered. I prefer my heroes to be underpowered rather than overpowered, from a bias towards underdogs, but it is justified by the story that the author is telling, and the author does, at one point (albeit briefly), set it up so that the protagonist loses each power as he uses it. He has so many that it almost doesn't matter, and when it's crucial to the plot he doesn't lose one, but at least the attempt was made.

A couple of dangling modifiers, a few homonym errors, "alright" instead of "all right", and the inexcusable use of multiple question marks and exclamation marks (together) keep it off the "well-edited" shelf, but it's pretty clean apart from that.

I would have bought the next one, except that the subsequent books are all priced at $5.99. While it's good, it's not twice as good as plenty of books I can get for half that price, so I'll read those instead.

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Review: The Watchmaker of Filigree Street

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I'd vaguely heard good things about this book, and bought it when it came up on sale.

I ended up being disappointed because it didn't go in the direction I was expecting, in terms of the relationship between the characters, and even more because I ended up thoroughly disliking the main female character. Not just for her selfishness, but for her ill-conceived and irresponsible actions, and her attitude to the other main characters.

Now, partly this is a matter of taste in types of story, and has nothing to do with quality. But on the question of quality, there are quite a few accidentally omitted words; "harrow" as a mistake for "furrow"; a confusion between baron and baronet (which are completely different); and a safety catch on a revolver. It's not terrible, but it needs more polish.

Everyone - the Japanese Buddhist, the well-brought-up young lady, everyone - has only one swear: "Christ". This struck me as both mildly offensive and unlikely.

I won't be looking for more books by this author.

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Review: The Uploaded

The Uploaded The Uploaded by Ferrett Steinmetz
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I don't read dystopian, as a rule, and it's a pretty firm rule. Nor do I generally like books with a high body count. But by the time I discovered that this book is both of those things, I'd been charmed by the voice of its viewpoint character. I finished it and even enjoyed it, despite the fact that it's not the sort of thing I usually like.

It's told from the flipside of the "Rapture of the Nerds," the technological advance that enables personalities to be uploaded. The conscious dead outnumber the living, who are their miserable slaves, maintaining the servers and trying to be the kind of people the dead will eventually vote into the paradisal afterlife - or, as it's known, the Upterlife. Most people's greatest ambition is to be dead; culture consists of an endless series of reboots of franchises that were popular when the oldest dead were alive, and anything creative is in the realm of the dead. In self-defence, the dead have forbidden the living from learning to program. The most excruciating suffering of the living is dismissed with the argument that they'll get over the trauma in two or three hundred years.

The main character is an orphan (thanks to a mutated plague), whose parents are so busy on their World of Warcraft-style quests in the Upterlife that they neglect him and his sister. Partly in order to protect his sister, and partly because he's just a rebellious person, he links up with a rebel underground and with Neo-Christian insurgents (who see the Upterlife as blasphemous) to take on the inventor of the Upterlife, who is permanently President of the United States.

It's over-the-top. It's funny, moving, tragic, and eventually triumphant, though at high cost for all the characters. It's cleverly and skilfully written. If I didn't dislike dystopian stories with a high body count so much, I would certainly be giving it five stars.

I received a copy from Netgalley for review.

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Review: Artemis

Artemis Artemis by Andy Weir
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I enjoyed this author's book The Martian, despite the abundance of infodumps (and the annoying habit he has of using an exclamation mark as well as a question mark in the same sentence, which, if I was his editor, I would not allow). This book has the same faults, and many more, but is lacking the main thing I liked about The Martian: a viewpoint character I could really get behind and cheer on to succeed.

Jazz, the viewpoint character in this book, is like Mark Watney in The Martian in that she's a smartass. But while Mark's emphasis is on the smart, Jazz's is definitely on the ass. She tells us three or four times that she makes poor life choices, and demonstrates that this is true even more often; she refuses to fulfil her considerable potential out of, as far as I could tell, immature rebelliousness; she's a petty crook; and her main story goal is to commit major sabotage on vital infrastructure (there is a good reason, but still), while Mark's straightforwardly laudable goal is to survive and escape against the odds.

Artemis is a kind of heist, something I normally enjoy, but for me to enjoy a heist it needs to be more clever than this and pulled off by a lovable rogue - and I just didn't find Jazz lovable. Yes, she has one area of ethical firmness (she will always deliver on a contract), and she eventually acts heroically (to fix something she has broken), but it didn't make up for the other issues with her character. Her arc is that she learns to trust and work with other people, which worked for Lego Batman, but is a bit cheesy here.

She's supposedly Saudi, by the way, but is effectively American. The moonbase is owned by the Kenyans, but is effectively American; all the domes are named after the first American astronauts to land on the moon. None of the nods to cultural diversity were quite believable to me; it all just seemed American. Not to mention that Jazz isn't entirely convincing as a woman, either. Men can write convincing female characters, and Americans can write convincing non-Americans, but it's harder than many people (including most male American writers) seem to think.

The infodumps, too, as well as being annoying in themselves, are sometimes too close to breaking the fourth wall, in that Jazz thinks to explain things that a reader of today would find remarkable but she would not - for example, the lack of a drinking age on the moon. And then there are the ones that are just unnecessarily detailed. "How much do you know about aluminum?" says a character. To myself, I mutter, "As much as I want to. Less than I'm about to."

After all of the dull expository lumps of Space! Science!, the McGuffin seemed to me, as a layperson, to break or at least unconvincingly bend the laws of physics with regard to transmission of light through a non-vacuum. And while there are references to the original American moon landings being about a century before, which places us at least in the 2060s, the technology isn't (apart from the unconvincing McGuffin) anything that we couldn't build today; nothing really seems to have advanced, and the world hasn't changed a great deal.

What really sunk the story for me, though, was the ending. I'm going to have to use spoiler tags here to talk about it in detail.

(view spoiler)

So the author writes himself into a scenario where, by all logic, the main character would be in a near-fatal amount of trouble, and gets her off by fudging severely and, to me, unconvincingly.

Overall, I thought this book caught fire on the launchpad. It didn't succeed in terms of craft, character, plot, or setting. I give it three stars only because it's amusing in places, and occasionally clever.

I received a copy from Netgalley for review.

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Saturday, 1 July 2017

Review: The Forgotten Beasts of Eld

The Forgotten Beasts of Eld The Forgotten Beasts of Eld by Patricia A. McKillip
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I thought I'd read this before, but I didn't remember it once I got into it, and I would have remembered a book like this. I think I'd just heard about it so often that I assumed I'd read it, particularly since I love the author's other work.

McKillip writes with a magnificent complexity and depth, in the mythopoeic style championed by Tolkien. Lest we be fooled by the commercial epic fantasy of the 1970s and 1980s into thinking that Tolkien was all about armies and orcs and a quirky mixed group on a quest, this book reminds us that there was another, deeper layer to his work, which few subsequent authors have the skills to emulate. It's poetic, without ever trying too hard for beauty for its own sake; it's mythic, while also being anchored in the reality of human psychology; it's epic, without depicting a single battle on stage (though a battle forms an important part of the backstory).

Love, revenge, betrayal and jealousy weave powerfully through the plot, as do wisdom and self-understanding. (view spoiler)

The central characters are magnificent, grand, and wholehearted. The setting is vivid, rich, and magical. The beasts of the title are worthy to stand beside the great dragons, lions, cats, swans, and boars of myth and legend.

A couple of quotations, to give you the flavour:

"My heart is in your heart. I gave it to you with my name that night and you are its guardian, to treasure it, or let it wither and die. I do not understand you. I am angry with you. I am hurt and helpless, but nothing would fill the ache of the hollowness in me where your name would echo if I lost you."

"I have many people who know my name, but only one or two or three that know who it belongs to."

The wisdom at the heart of this book is that, in caring for others, we come to understand ourselves; and the person who comes to this insight most clearly is not the young boy, but the magically powerful middle-aged woman. It's a landmark work in the fantasy field, and I'm glad it's being reissued in ebook, and that I had the chance to read it through Netgalley for this review.

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Sunday, 14 May 2017

Review: The New Voices of Fantasy

The New Voices of Fantasy The New Voices of Fantasy by Peter S. Beagle
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a collection of stories by authors who have recently hit the upper levels of speculative fiction writing - publication in the top venues, award nominations, and so forth.

I'd read several of these before, mostly in the The Long List Anthology Volume 2: More Stories From the Hugo Award Nomination List; some of them were good enough that I read them again. I skipped Alyssa Wong's "Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers" (which was more horror-like than I prefer), Carmen Maria Machado's "The Husband Stitch", a magic-realist story that didn't have a strong enough payoff for me to want to read it again, and Usman T. Malik's "The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn," which was good but, let's say, took a lot of words for the amount of story in it.

I did re-read Maria Dahvana Headley's "The Tallest Doll in New York City," a lovely Runyonesque that I'd previously read in the Tor.com anthology, and Max Gladstone's "A Kiss with Teeth", which I'd read twice before in other anthologies. It's that good. His novels are, for me, a frustrating blend of brilliant and flawed, but this story is excellent. Even though a lot of its excellence is in the masterfully maintained tension, and even though I (obviously) already knew the ending, it rewarded rereading.

The other story I re-read was Sofia Samatar's "Selkie Stories Are for Losers", which, the first time I read it, didn't do much for me. I appreciated it more on a re-read; like most of these stories, what it's about is human relationships, and it takes an allusive and indirect approach that, for me, needed a second read to get.

As I write this review, I'm partway through reading Event Horizon 2017, a collection of stories by authors eligible for the Campbell Award - that is, people who've recently made their first professional sale. I'm trying to figure out what the difference is between those stories and the ones in this volume; haven't quite put my finger on it yet, but it's something to do with having a second level to the story, and and extra degree of skill in weaving it together. While I didn't necessarily like every story in this volume, I appreciated the authors' ability.

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Monday, 8 May 2017

Review: The Door in the Hedge

The Door in the Hedge The Door in the Hedge by Robin McKinley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It's Robin McKinley, so it is, of course, beautifully written (with a caveat I'll get to in a moment).

It's in the fairy-tale genre, so you need to be willing to accept that princes and princesses are (nearly) all wise, beautiful, good, brave, and kind. There is one commoner protagonist, but the rest are all royal, and noble in both senses of the word.

You also need to be able to accept that marrying people off to other people who they've never spent any time with is a reasonable thing to do, and that (in at least one case) the woman's consent is not particularly required for this. Leave your feminism, as well as your Marxism, if any, at the door. You could blame the source genre, but... eh. The author managed to give a female protagonist plenty of agency in The Blue Sword. I found the king offering his daughters up as prizes hard to forgive.

My other gripe is about the semicolons. An occasional semicolon is fine; it shows that two thoughts are linked together more tightly than two separate sentences would convey. But when the vast majority of your sentences include a semicolon (I am not exaggerating - far more sentences have one than lack one), and not a few of them contain two semicolons, at that point it's moved beyond a stylistic choice, and has gone all the way past an annoying tic to become an outright fault in the writing.

If none of those three issues bother you too much, these are beautifully told (or retold) stories by a highly capable author.


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Monday, 1 May 2017

Review: The Improbable Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

The Improbable Adventures of Sherlock Holmes The Improbable Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by John Joseph Adams
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was OK. It could have been much better had a really good copy editor got rid of the Americanisms, the anachronisms, the misused words (two separate stories use "sojourn" to mean "journey," which is the opposite of what it means), the out-of-character moments, the occasional infodumping, and the cases where some of the authors attempted to sound 19th-century and only managed to sound stiff.

We have many (a great many) different visions of Holmes and his supporting characters here. In a couple, he wears the deerstalker hat, which was introduced by the Basil Rathbone films and never appears in the books. In one, he despises and disparages Gilbert and Sullivan while Watson enjoys it; in another, vice versa, which seemed to me much less like his canon character. In some of the stories, he shows a familiarity with popular literature which, in canon, he explicitly avoided reading; in some, he is much kinder and more polite than canon Holmes; in many, he is prepared to believe in non-rational explanations. In one, he's mistaken for an applicant for a servant's position, which is ridiculous; no British servant in the 19th century would mistake an (undisguised) gentleman for an applicant to be an underbutler, any more than he'd mistake him for a woman, and for much the same reason: cues of voice, dress, and manner proclaimed social class, and everyone was well aware of them from an early age. Not to mention that an applicant to be the underbutler would never knock at the front door.

In one story, a thoroughly OOC Holmes, his desire for a more intimate relationship with Watson thwarted by Watson's marriage, and hiding out in Paris after his apparent death, commits adultery with Irene Adler, who claims to love her husband even as she deceives and betrays him.

Most of the stories are from Watson's POV, though the very British, very Victorian Watson sometimes uses American or modern language that the authors and their copy editor seem oblivious to. A few are from other characters' points of view, such as Mary Robinette Kowal's story, from the POV of someone helped by Holmes and Watson. Although I respect MRK's advice on the Writing Excuses podcast very much, her actual stories usually disappoint me, and this was one example. The POV character has little agency, being mainly an observer, and this is one of several stories which was clearly referencing things outside the Holmes canon with which I'm not familiar - meaning that I missed the significance and that part of the story failed.

There are also several stories in which the author shows far too much of their research, turning Watson into an infodumper.

There were good stories, too. The Stephen King, for example, does a better job of Watson's voice than most of the others (voice is a talent of King's). The Neil Gaiman story, which I'd read in a couple of other collections, skilfully blends Mythos with a deeper familiarity with the Holmes canon than many of the other stories showed. I was amused by the story which took Conan Doyle's The Lost World>/i> as a point of departure for a clever pastiche, involving a dinosaur, trombones, and a ridiculous exaggeration of Holmes' mastery of disguise.

There were some good moments, but not, for me, enough of them to make up for the issues, and it ended up only average on the whole.


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Monday, 24 April 2017

Review: Heirs of Grace

Heirs of Grace Heirs of Grace by Tim Pratt
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Independent, modern young woman narrates, in First Person Smartass, how she was just an ordinary person with an ordinary life who didn't believe in the supernatural, but then it turned out that the supernatural believed in her, and around about the same time she met this guy...

There are hundreds of authors writing that exact book at the moment, many of them very badly; and when I see an instance of it, I usually move on, sometimes with an eyeroll, to the next book in the hope of something I haven't seen dozens of times before. But I was vaguely aware of the name "Tim Pratt" - I think I've read one or two of his short stories - and paused long enough on this one to get the sample and see if he wrote it well.

He wrote it very well indeed.

I was surprised, when I read the back matter, to discover that (as T.A. Pratt) he's the author of the Marla Mason series. I stopped reading that series because it is so completely unlike this. Marla is lacking in empathy, violent, and amoral; the protagonist of this book is intensely empathetic, and her rejection of the easy, violent solution gives us an ending that I found fresh, unexpected, and extremely satisfying.

Also, there's a mysterious magical house, and for some reason I love mysterious magical houses. There are some cool magical items, too, and the author wisely dodges the Q trap (where every single one of them turns out to be the only thing that will save James Bond at some key moment of the plot); some of them are simply cool rather than being at all useful.

I appreciated that the protagonist didn't rush into her relationship with the man she met, and that she took the time to communicate with him about something that could have split them apart (this is lampshaded as something that would resolve practically every romantic comedy plot much more quickly, and is a thing that real adult human beings do). She makes good decisions throughout, in fact - not only good-sensible but good-morally - so the plot is not driven by her stupidity and risk-taking, meaning that when the love interest saves her it's not infuriating.

Overall, annoying tropes are avoided or averted, the characters work well together, the protagonist's voice is genuinely witty and amusing, and we end up in an unexpected and satisfactory place after an enjoyable ride. This book demonstrates that even an overused premise can still be the starting point for a fresh and well-executed story.

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Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Review: Zeroes

Zeroes Zeroes by Scott Westerfeld
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A fresh take on the YA supers genre. No high-tech gadgets or inexplicable flying here; these teenagers have subtler powers, mostly to do with interaction with other people. Scam has a voice that, when he lets it speak, knows exactly what to say to get what he wants. It has knowledge he lacks, but doesn't have much wisdom, and is as likely to get him into trouble as out of it. Bellwether, also known as Glorious Leader behind his back, can influence other people to do what he wants. Flicker, who's blind, can see through other people's eyes. Anon is forgotten, or not noticed, by everyone, even the other Zeroes, even his family. Crash destroys technology. And Mob can influence the mood of a crowd.

It's a diverse group; Bellwether is Hispanic, Crash is an African immigrant, Flicker is disabled, and Crash, Flicker and Mob are female.

Scam is, frankly, a screw-up, and as you'd expect from someone who can usually get what he wants, not exactly the most admirable character. But he does try to do better, and partially succeeds. Along the way he gets the Zeroes involved with two separate groups of drug dealers and Mob's small-time criminal father (which is how Mob joins the group), and triggers a disastrous extraction from a police station.

The stakes are high for the characters, though they're not saving the world, just each other. Things go horribly wrong, and they fight hard and pull together to set them as right as they can, though that leaves some very rough edges.

The writing is as smooth and professional as you'd expect from Scott Westerfeld. I spotted one very subtle homonym error ("leeched" and "leached" are often hard to distinguish between, but when you're talking about vampires, it's definitely the "sucked out" rather than "washed out" one you want); a misplaced apostrophe ("peoples'"); and a minor typo, but since I spot about two dozen errors in the average book, this is nothing. The kids' voices are all similar, but the characters are different enough that it doesn't matter. The tension is well maintained and well resolved.

Overall, a good read.

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Friday, 7 April 2017

Review: Rotherweird

Rotherweird Rotherweird by Andrew Caldecott
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A highly unusual book, a kind of portal fantasy/historical fantasy/contemporary urban fantasy blend. It reminds me most of Robert Holdstock or Charles de Lint, though less ominous in tone than either.

There are a great many characters, and according to the author's afterword, there were originally a lot more. I had a cold when I read it, so my brain was fuzzy, and I sometimes had to think hard to remember who a character was when they were mentioned after being offstage for a while. I felt that it could have been achieved with a tighter cast; in particular, I didn't really see why the villain found it necessary to supply himself with not only a fake wife, but a fake son, since the son never seemed to contribute to his plans in any way. I could see why the author involved him (he played a minor, but important, role in the plot), but I couldn't figure out why the villain did so. The "son" was also oddly subservient to the villain, given the rest of his character.

One thing I disliked was that strong, fulfilling relationships between men and women were conspicuous by their absence. As well as the fake marriage, there are a couple of marriages which have obviously been contracted for political reasons, and in which the wife is a cypher, never developed as a character. Another marriage is threatened by the husband's drinking. I can only remember one relationship (the publican and his wife) where both partners are developed and effective, and where they don't seem to be in conflict, but that's because they don't seem to be in anything; they take action separately, but don't really have a scene together where they interact. The outsider who is the best candidate for "central character" (he's not really a protagonist, or less so than some of the other characters, but we spend a lot of time with him) (view spoiler).

The point of view is, I suppose, omniscient, though it mostly follows one character per scene (fooling me for a while into thinking it was third person limited), occasionally switching heads mid-scene. This is necessary in part because there's no one protagonist in the complicated plot.

The setting is a town separated by statute from England at large, to preserve a terrible secret. It's an odd mixture; it has a long tradition of scientific inquiry (something best done while not isolated, in general), and the school - a secondary school, not a university - produces cutting-edge research, yet there's little evidence of modern technology; the scientific prowess of some of the characters is an idea more than it is a developed element of the plot. The overall feel of the town is a lot closer to its Elizabethan origins than it is to the present day, which directly contradicts the strong imperative to forget about the past and forge towards the future. I felt that this aspect hadn't been fully thought through.

It's sounding as if I didn't enjoy it, but I did. The mysterious, and never fully explained, portals to the other world, the Elizabethan backstory, the various mysteries, and the joint maneuverings of the large cast kept me involved and interested. I did think it was, at one and the same time, over-elaborate and yet not completely worked out, but it shows a lot of promise, and I will be watching for the sequel.

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Review: Slaves of the Switchboard of Doom: A Novel of Retropolis

Slaves of the Switchboard of Doom: A Novel of Retropolis Slaves of the Switchboard of Doom: A Novel of Retropolis by Bradley W. Schenck
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An unusual book, in an enjoyable way; full of the tropes of 1930s pulp adventure, and yet told in a matter-of-fact, wry style rather than the hyperbolic manner of the early pulps. The chapter headings are the most hyperbolic thing about it; everything else is, if anything, understated. The hero approaches the problems he faces systematically, drawing on extensive practice, and apart from calling himself "Dash" is almost self-effacing. The main female character is firmly assertive about not being excluded from danger, and Dash is smart enough not to argue too much.

I was concerned early on when a number of short scenes introduced separate characters who were, it seemed at first, pursuing unconnected agendas. This is a style I've seen used before in humourous fiction, and it can easily lead to an overcomplicated plot full of underdeveloped characters - a sure formula for me to lose interest.

The plot was complicated, and the characters were not the deepest I've ever seen, but they were as deep as they needed to be for pulp fiction. And before too long, their stories started to intersect.

I did enjoy the way in which everyone, except the villains, just took it as a basic truth that mechanical people were people just like biological people, and that no right-thinking person would deny them equal rights. There are a large number of good people in this book, and they cooperate very well. Even the Priests of the Spider God have their code of honour. The outright villains are an engineer who wants everything to be tidy, and two small children.

I'm a difficult audience for comedy, and not easily amused, but I was amused by this. Recommended.

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Sunday, 2 April 2017

Review: A Tyranny of Queens

A Tyranny of Queens A Tyranny of Queens by Foz Meadows
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A book of numerous flaws, but with strengths that, for me, outweighed them.

As with the first book, there's a whole lot of coincidence driving the plot, including separate people in different worlds repeatedly figuring out the same thing at the same time for different reasons. The author goes so far as to lampshade this abundance of helpful coincidence at one point, through the mouth of the central character, who comes very close to being what I call a "spoiled protagonist" - handed what she needs when she needs it. I say that she comes close, because she also has a rough time of it. Ultimately, though, she (and most of the other characters) lack agency at key moments of the plot.

This may be a deliberate choice, like a lot of the issues. Another problem with the book is that it does read a bit like it's filling a diversity bingo card, rather than exploring any issue of diversity in any depth. I heard an interview with the author on the Skiffy and Fanty podcast, and she mentioned that the world was one she'd started building when she was around the age of the main character (mid-teens); this may be why it seems a bit like wish-fulfillment at times; why the backstory to the matriarchal society turns out to be so banal and unsurprising; and also why the names are often confusing in their similarity. Here's a de-spoilerised sample:

'"...Kadeja," Yena said. She sat at Yasha's bedside, flanked by Sashi and Safi, while Ksa a Kaje watched...'

I read the first book in the middle of last year, and I couldn't remember enough of the it to make head or tail of the political bits for a long time. I did what I usually do in this situation: let them wash over me and kept reading until I got back to something more interesting. Ultimately, the political maneuverings were background to the real story in any case.

The real story - or the one that felt real to me - was the story of Saffron, the teenager from our world's Australia (though it's never clarified in this volume that it's Australia, and that will confuse some readers). She's returned, maimed, from her difficult experiences in book 1 to her home, and nobody understands what she's gone through, and she can't tell them. She hasn't thought about her best friend much - the best friend seems to exist mainly because someone like Saffron would have one, not because she contributes much of anything - but she makes a new friend, who helps her escape the life that's now alien and intolerable to her, and then vanishes from the plot. Saffron and Yena, the transgender girl who she developed a tentative attraction to in the first book, have parallel plotlines for a long time, in different worlds, not really thinking about each other much (and certainly not with any kind of longing); they then, when they meet, fall into a passionate embrace and suddenly have a fully formed relationship. It's kind of like a romance, except with most of the beats removed, and, like other aspects of the plot, felt unearned and undeveloped.

Despite all these flaws, and the overuse of the metaphor of a heart "rabbiting" in someone's chest, I did enjoy this book - at least the Saffron parts, and to a lesser extent the Yena parts. That was because they were passionate about things and pursued them with determination, even if they sometimes lacked agency despite their best efforts, and at other times were handed solutions without working for them. I felt for them in their difficult situations, and that constitutes the book's success, for me.

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Sunday, 26 March 2017

Review: Other Worlds Than These

Other Worlds Than These Other Worlds Than These by John Joseph Adams
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

John Joseph Adams' taste in stories and mine don't always coincide, but when I saw this on $1.99 sale and checked the authors in the table of contents, I thought there would probably be enough stories I enjoyed to make it worth buying. I was pleasantly surprised to end up enjoying almost all of them.

I've always liked portal fantasy, which is coming back into vogue again (after a break while everyone sorted out the whole colonialist aspect). I also enjoy, to a lesser extent, alternate-worlds stories. This volume collects both types and intermixes them.

A word about the copy editing before I start in on the individual stories. I know that some authors, even well-known ones, make a lot of errors and are therefore hard to copy edit, but this particular copy editor seems to have a couple of mistaken beliefs. One is that "two hundred" requires a hyphen, and another is that "a few days' R&R" doesn't require an apostrophe. There are other missing apostrophes, comma splices, "Ok" when it should be either "OK" or "okay," an uncaught inconsistency in one story between "Life-giver" and "Light-giver," "peeling" as a homonym error for "pealing," "the Mura's front lawn" when Mura is the name of the family and it should be "Muras'," "however" and "whatever" each written as two words, some missing question marks, and numerous other little errors (missing punctuation, mostly). Then there are couple of sentences of dialog that have been rephrased, but the following sentence of dialog is still replying to the original phrasing, and now makes no sense. It's a poor standard for what should be an impeccable book, given the reputation of the (acquiring) editor and the authors.

Leaving all of that aside, how were the stories? They were, mostly, excellent. I'll briefly summarize and comment, and rate them out of ten.

"Moon Six," Stephen Baxter (7/10): alternate-world SF around the moon landings. A downer ending, in part because, in keeping with the hard-SF tradition, the protagonist is mostly an observer of significant events rather than someone who makes a difference to them.

"A Brief Guide to Other Histories," Paul McAuley (7/10): a parable of occupied Iraq, but it's one version of America occupied by another. About as dark as you'd expect.

"Crystal Halloway and the Forgotten Passage," Seanan McGuire (7/10): portal fantasy, with a Chosen One from our world battling to balance her two lives. Downer ending.

"An Empty House with Many Doors," Michael Swanwick: no rating, because I skipped this one, reading only far enough to confirm that it was Swanwick's usual depressing nihilism.

"Twenty-Two Centimeters," Gregory Benford (7/10): a first-contact alternate-Earth story, with an Earth so alternate it might as well just be any alien planet.

"Ana's Tag," William Alexander (8/10): a strong sense of place (impoverished rural America) in this tale, where the alternate world is the fae realm.

"Nothing Personal," Pat Cadigan (6/10): I found this slow-moving; it took a long time to get anywhere, and when it got there the destination wasn't, perhaps, completely worth the trip.

"The Rose Wall," Joyce Carol Oates (6/10): an inconclusive ending made this feel like the beginning of a story rather than a complete story. Well told, but I found it unsatisfying.

"The Thirteen Texts of Arthyria," John R. Fultz (7/10): reminiscent of sword-and-sorcery and at the same time of the odder kind of portal fantasy (I'm thinking of Eddison, though it isn't quite as strange as that, and fortunately lacks the ultraviolet prose).

"Ruminations in an Alien Tongue," Vandana Singh (7/10): a sense of age and decrepitude haunts this story, which moves back and forth in time and builds up a picture of an interesting life.

"Ten Sigmas," Paul Melko (8/10): I enjoyed the first of this author's alternate-worlds novels, and this story was just as good: a person with multiple selves who can communicate across their alternate worlds decides to intervene, at personal cost, to rescue someone.

"Magic for Beginners," Kelly Link (7/10): I've only read one other Kelly Link story that I recall, and that one was less of a story than a series of events, carefully depicted, which eventually just stopped. This is the same, but unlike the other story it's amusing rather than depressing. It has, for me, a tenuous connection to the theme of the book, but the connection is there.

"[a ghost samba]," Ian McDonald (6/10): tries perhaps a bit too hard to be very, very Brazilian. The story itself, under the layers of cultural reference, is simple, and I didn't find it particularly appealing.

"The Cristobal Effect," Simon McCaffery (7/10): a traveler across alternate worlds prevents the death of James Dean, which doesn't work out especially well for anyone.

"Beyond Porch and Portal," E. Catherine Tobler (7/10): springboards off the odd circumstances surrounding the death of Edgar Allen Poe, in a story which has resonance with his but isn't really a Poe kind of story. In mostly a good way.

"Signal to Noise," Alastair Reynolds (8/10): a poignant tale of a man given the chance to spend a last week with an alternate version of his wife, who has just died in an accident.

"Porridge on Islac," Ursula K. Le Guin (7/10): I'd read this before in the author's collected stories. It is, of course (given who wrote it), a strongly human story about lives in unusual circumstances.

"Mrs. Todd's Shortcut," Stephen King (8/10): I'd read this one elsewhere also, but re-read it because I remembered it being enjoyable. It still was. Reminded me of Roger Zelazny's "hellrides".

"The Ontological Factor," David Barr Kirtley (7/10): an unpromising title, but not a bad portal fantasy. Avoids the colonialist issues of the genre by positing that our reality is kind of average in its degree of realness, rather than being superior.

"Dear Annabehls," Mercurio D. Rivera (7/10): an amusing piece in which alternate versions of an advice columnist give advice on coping with a situation where people can move freely between alternate worlds.

"The Goat Variations," Jeff Vandermeer (7/10): the master of weird produces a thought-provoking riff on George W. Bush's seven-minute delay on September 11, 2001, in the elementary school where he was reading the kids a story about a goat.

"The Lonely Songs of Laren Dorr," George R.R. Martin (7/10): Martin's stuff is usually too dark and nihilistic for my taste, but this one is more poignant than depressing. Reminiscent of Fritz Lieber.

"Of Swords and Horses," Carrie Vaughn (7/10): I sometimes like Vaughn's stories more than this. It's from the point of view of the mother of the Chosen One who vanishes into the other world, and, while strong and realistic, it has the drawback of focusing on the person who isn't having the adventures.

"Impossible Dreams," Tim Pratt (8/10): a rather sweet story about a film buff who discovers that alternate movies are not the best thing he can find in a mysterious video shop from an alternate world.

"Like Minds," Robert Reed (6/10): somewhat rambling and ultimately despairing, with moments of cruelty.

"The City of Blind Delight," Catherynne M. Valente (6/10): like her first name, Valente's stuff is consistently overwritten and overornamented for my taste, but sometimes manages to end up with a decent story half-visible through the fluff. This is not one of those times.

"Flower, Mercy, Needle, Chain," Yoon Ha Lee (7/10): I think I've read this, or another part of the same story, before; it has very much the feel of being part of a longer story, and is a well-thought-out exploration of an unusual variation on the alternate-world idea.

"Angles," Orson Scott Card (7/10): no lack of storyness here, though I was surprised to see such an experienced writer come out with "said Moshe nastily" rather than something stronger that dispensed with the adverb.

"The Magician and the Maid and Other Stories," Christie Yant (7/10): I anticipated the twist quite early, but not a bad story for all that.

"Trips," Robert Silverberg (7/10): an exploration more than a story, with Silverberg's characteristic obsession with sex, but, of course, well told.

Overall, my ratings average out to about 7/10; there were, for me, no truly earthshaking stories, but most of them I liked at least a little, and some quite a lot. And there are certainly plenty of them.

A good and varied exploration of the collection's theme.

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Review: The Dragon Slayer's Son

The Dragon Slayer's Son The Dragon Slayer's Son by Robinne Weiss
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I found this YA/MG story fresh and well executed. The New Zealand setting was well conveyed - not only the landscape, but cultural references, and the generally cooperative and helpful vibe among the characters. Not that there weren't antagonists - there definitely were, and there was conflict and tension, and conflict even within the team at times - but the general feeling was that any new person you met was more likely to be friendly and helpful than not. Also, the main character wasn't ever formally appointed as the leader, and for a long time the group didn't appear to have (or need) a leader, making decisions by informal consensus. This is very much Kiwi culture.

I appreciated that the kids, even the boys, didn't feel the need to be emotionless and staunch, and that the losses they'd all suffered were treated realistically and shown to matter. The central group were well drawn, clearly distinct from one another, and all brought important contributions to the table; all of them stepped up when needed, even whiny Ella. I also appreciated that there were two girls in the core team, who were very different from one another, and two people of non-European ancestry.

The kids were believable as kids, and the actions they took were also believable as things (unusually heroic and sensible) kids could and would do.

There were a couple of big challenges to my suspension of disbelief, but I don't know if they'd bother the main target audience of middle-grade readers. Firstly, that the existence of dragons up to 30 metres long has been successfully hidden up to the present day, and secondly, that dragon-slayers only get trained once their parents die (and are sent to training as soon as their dragon-slayer parent dies). The latter seemed to be in there not because it made any sense as a rule in itself, but simply to set up the scenario of the dragon-slayer school and the characters being sent there. But everything else was so well done and flowed so well that I was willing to overlook that one.

The ecological thread is strong and clear without being preachy. Overall, highly recommended.

I received a copy of this book for review through the SpecFicNZ review programme.

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Monday, 20 March 2017

Review: Barsk: The Elephants' Graveyard

Barsk: The Elephants' Graveyard Barsk: The Elephants' Graveyard by Lawrence M. Schoen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A novel with significant flaws, most notably in the form of elephantine holes in the worldbuilding, and yet enjoyable because of the characters and their struggle.

The setting (a galaxy filled with anthropomorphic/uplifted animals from Earth) is interesting, though the backstory, when it finally arrived, didn't surprise me even slightly. The psychic-powers aspects are rather old-fashioned in SF; they were big in the 80s, but no longer, and the handwavium is plentiful, obvious, and pretty clearly nonsense - plus the way in which it is ultimately used doesn't even make sense in its own terms. (view spoiler)

I also found the ultimate solution to the problems of the main character overly tidy and optimistic (though perhaps the optimism in (view spoiler) is going to come back to bite the protagonist, or someone else, in a sequel).

I listened to the audiobook, so I can't comment much on the editing, except to observe that the author writes "run the gauntlet" when he means "run the gamut". I can comment on the narration: it was mostly OK, but sometimes the narrator's voice didn't match up with the description in the text very well. A solid B performance.

There was a lot I didn't believe in the worldbuilding; not just the psychic subatomic particles, but the massive amounts of medicines and drugs being produced by a population of a million people who mostly lived low-tech lives, and mostly didn't seem to be involved in that industry. Also, the six-year-old who didn't act like a six-year-old in pretty much any way (yes, I know he was special), and who, despite an active lifestyle and an inability to feel pain, was still alive.

I also wondered for a long time about the two different kinds of phant: lox and eleph (not sure of the spelling, since I listened to the audiobook) - although I eventually figured out, and confirmed by checking Wikipedia, that they corresponded to African and Asian elephants. This was a worldbuilding detail that wasn't exploited, a difference that made no difference. We were never told how the two groups' appearance differed, though it clearly did, since everyone could tell on sight which group any given phant belonged to; and there was no hint of an answer to the obvious questions: Do lox tease eleph in the schoolyard, or vice versa? Are eleph parents upset if their daughter brings home a lox boyfriend? If not, why not? This would have given the culture a bit more depth, and made the "furry people bad and prejudiced, non-furry people good and broadminded" division a bit less obvious.

Despite all these aspects that didn't work for me, there was plenty that did. I wanted the protagonist to succeed, I liked him and his supporting cast, and I felt for them because of the ordinary caring relationships that were depicted between them. There was a good amount of suspense in the plot, too. I have no complaints about the storytelling, except inasmuch as the issues with the worldbuilding turned into plot holes for me. By keeping my disbelief forcibly suspended, I enjoyed the book, and I would read a sequel (which I believe is underway).

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Saturday, 11 March 2017

Review: Four Roads Cross

Four Roads Cross Four Roads Cross by Max Gladstone
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The first two books in this series were a hit and a miss for me. Three Parts Dead was great; Two Serpents Rise I didn't like nearly as much.

This was primarily because of the main characters. Tara in Three Parts Dead was smarter than anyone else, but didn't let it go to her head; instead, she cultivated alliances, not in a scheming way but with people she liked, and won the day through a combination of clever improvisation and determination. Caleb in Two Serpents Rise drove the plot largely by being an idiot and alienating people.

This book returns us to Tara, and so I picked it up, hoping for a repeat of my experience with the first book. That's what I got.

I got more intelligent, brave choices and clever improvisation from Tara; more assorted, and often not especially powerful, people coming together to do the right thing; and more of the wonderfully bizarre worldbuilding and beautiful phrases that enhanced the first book so much. Anyone capable of writing "as night wrestled day to the ground and kissed him so hard their teeth clicked" or "professional ethics made a hollow sound when struck" gets extra points from me.

There are some wonderful character moments, too, such as "instinctive hatred for an activity was just the world's way of challenging you to master it," or "nothing set Tara so on edge as the sense she was being soothed".

Something that's improved from the first two books, and I suspect this is because a different and more vigilant copy editor is now on the job, is the homonyms. The first two books were rife with basic homonym errors. In this one, I spotted two definites (principle/principal, varietal/variety) and a couple of possibles (hutched/hunched, rifle/riffle). There's also a place where "less" has been used instead of the "more" that would make the sentence make sense; one where the wrong city name is used; and a couple of typos, but only a couple.

What hasn't improved is the frequent absence of the past perfect tense ("a year ago she stood" instead of "had stood"). Every time I hit an example - and there were at least seventeen - it disoriented me and pulled me out of the story.

The other thing that disoriented me was the occasional inclusion of a mundane detail very much of our world, like vinyl or a jazz quartet, when this is very much not our world; or of what seemed to be a form of parody of something in our world a la early Terry Pratchett, like the commercial flight by dragon. It felt, at those moments, like the story didn't know quite what it wanted to be or what its relation to our world was. I realise that in some cases at least, the author was trying to anchor us with a mundane detail, because the importance of ordinary people and their everyday concerns and commitments is a strong theme, but for me it didn't work.

Overall, though, despite these issues, the book worked extremely well for me, and was just the kind of thing I like: determined, principled, brave, intelligent characters allying to take down others more powerful than them in defence of what they love, in a gloriously strange world, with moments of apt description and insightful commentary on the human condition.

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Thursday, 2 March 2017

Review: Kismet

Kismet Kismet by Watts Martin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was excellent.

I would recommend it, first of all, to aspiring writers who want to know how to escalate stakes and keep the plot moving, because this is how you do it. Read Jack M. Bickham's Scene and Structure as your textbook, and then read this, because it's Bickham's advice put into action. (I don't know whether the author has read Bickham directly, but if not, the advice has filtered through somehow.)

Secondly, I'd recommend it to anyone - and there are a good many people like this - who thinks that you can't have a fast-moving, fun, tense, exciting, high-stakes space adventure that is, at the same time, about queer furries and the politics of oppression. Because you absolutely can, and this is it.

And finally, I'd recommend it to people who enjoy fast-moving, fun, tense, exciting, high-stakes space adventures.

A couple more words about the adventure/politics thing. I'll approach it by talking about the McGuffin.

A McGuffin (variously spelled) is a term Alfred Hitchcock used for the thing that everyone wants, which usually functions mostly as a plot driver. In the classic McGuffin scenario, it doesn't matter what it is. The briefcase in Pulp Fiction contains something - we never find out what. The point is that the characters want it and are prepared to do drastic things in order to get it.

Here, the McGuffin is a data store which contains information that actually is important to the plot, indeed essential to the plot, both because of why everyone wants it and because having it will eventually enable a character's life to be saved (someone important to the protagonist). It's inextricably entwined with the plot and the theme; it couldn't be substituted with a Maltese falcon or a briefcase of unknown contents. This is next-level McGuffining.

Exactly the same thing is true of the political aspects of this novel. Without them - without the history of prejudice and oppression, without the main character's mother's status as a martyr, without all the questions that are raised and struggled with (not necessarily answered), there is no story. It's not "I shall now address you on the subject of minority rights under the thin cloak of a story." It's "here is a story which arises organically out of the realities of what being a despised minority is like." And, as already intimated, it's an excellent story, full of adventure and conflict and escapes and chases and wonderful and terrible events.

In short: great character, excellent setting, competent prose, near-flawless copy editing, and a masterful plot.

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Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Review: The Jekyll Revelation

The Jekyll Revelation The Jekyll Revelation by Robert Masello
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Reminiscent of Tim Powers' "secret histories," but without Powers' regrettable tendency to shove all his research into the book whether it's relevant to the story or not. The author weaves together the life of Robert Louis Stevenson; his story of Jekyll and Hyde; the play based on the book; the Jack the Ripper murders, which occurred around the same time; and a modern story, set in California, in which a ranger discovers Stevenson's old diary.

The 19th-century story and the contemporary story, although they have the diary to connect them, don't have too many obvious parallels otherwise, and it feels that the author is just interleaving two extremely tenuously connected narratives in (mostly) alternating chapters. I suppose if you dug hard enough, you would find common themes and ideas.

Neither story, for me, wrapped up particularly satisfactorily. The big reveal was obvious to me long before it became obvious to Stevenson (for, I suppose, believable reasons), and the diary was more of a Maguffin in the modern story than it was something that drove any particular insights for the modern character who read it.

I did enjoy most of the journey, though. The author has an uncommon mastery of the tools of prose, including punctuation, which is refreshing, and a good attention to detail. The chapters set in America, for example, use the usual American convention of double quotation marks, and those told by Stevenson the British convention of single quotation marks, and also British spelling. He does have a couple of slip-ups, referring to a "semester" rather than a "term" at Oxford, and using "dungarees" in the American rather than the British sense in the British narrative (dungarees are two different items of clothing in the two dialects). There are a few other minor glitches, but they are very minor.

Overall, a well-told and interesting story.

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Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Review: Hounded

Hounded Hounded by Kevin Hearne
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Although I did enjoy this urban fantasy, I don't think I'll be reading more in the series, and that's mainly because of the main character.

First, he's overpowered. He's a 2100-year-old druid (who looks, and often acts, 21), and in this first book of the series he's already killing gods and sleeping with goddesses (and I use the plural for both of those advisedly). He's spent centuries making an amulet which functions like Batman's utility belt, and he starts the book with a near-invincible magic sword (and ends it with two). This doesn't leave the author much room to build up, or so it seems to me.

Secondly, there's the whole "acts 21" thing. He's a cocky fellow who thinks very little of either killing someone or sleeping with them, which reminds me rather too much of James Bond - a character I've never liked.

His dog is a lot more likeable. I believe there's a volume from the dog's POV, which I might read at some point.

Apart from the annoying quirk of joining independent clauses together with colons, and an occasional missing quotation mark, it's very clean from a copy editing perspective. But I prefer my protagonists more idealistic and more outgunned than this.

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Friday, 17 February 2017

Review: Shadows of Self

Shadows of Self Shadows of Self by Brandon Sanderson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I enjoy the Mistborn books greatly. The first trilogy is a wonderful mashup of epic fantasy and supers, while the second trilogy, of which this is part, is a mashup of supers and slightly steampunk Western. The protagonist's time in the Roughs, the frontier area, is told in flashback, though, and the current action takes place in a city, so it has a kind of urban fantasy vibe as well. The events of the first trilogy are legend and religion in the second, which is a great touch.

I listen to the Writing Excuses podcast and have watched some of Sanderson's videos, so I'm aware of his craft as I listen to these books. Mostly, though, I just immerse in them and enjoy them, while occasionally spotting a technique that he's talked about on the podcast or the videos.

For example, he sometimes talks about letting the reader feel clever because they guess the twist that's coming - and then doing something else that they haven't guessed. He definitely did that here; I saw the solution to the problem coming from miles away, in general if not in detail, but then he sprang a huge and completely unexpected revelation which suddenly cast the whole story, right back to the beginning, in a new light. This is top-class writing.

I listened to the audiobook, and the narrator does a wonderful job, particularly since one of the supporting characters is explicitly interested in accents and uses them in his crazy schemes. Combining comedy, tragedy and action, with a bit of police-procedural mystery and more than a little superheroism, and scattering reflections on identity, justice, the structure of society, and the search for happiness and freedom throughout, this is a book of many dimensions that I also found thoroughly entertaining and enjoyable.

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