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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Review: Kalanon's Rising

Kalanon's Rising Kalanon's Rising by Darian Smith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I picked this up because I saw a positive review of it on the website for SpecFicNZ, an organisation that both the author and I belong to. (We're acquainted in real life.)

I wasn't disappointed; it's a compelling, twisty mystery in a high-fantasy setting, with well-developed characters. I completely failed to guess the identity of the antagonist, which was great.

I've shelved it as "deserves-better-editing," which is the tag I use for well-told stories that are a bit scruffy around the edges as regards copy editing. It suffers from Jackson Pollock commas, the occasional missing quotation mark, and a few homonym slips and typos, but nothing too egregious, and it managed to hold my attention and enjoyment despite these minor flaws. I had no issues with the story craft at all.

Overall, a promising start to what could be a good series.

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Sunday, 15 January 2017

Review: Dreadnought

Dreadnought Dreadnought by April Daniels
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I don't give five stars out lightly, but this book deserved them. At one and the same time a fine superhero tale and a startlingly powerful portrait of what it's like to be transgender, it weaves the two together seamlessly, and delivers both exciting plot and deep characterisation.

Danny has never felt like a boy, and so when the dying superhero Dreadnought passes his mantle on to the nearest bystander - Danny - the power transforms the teenager into Danielle.

She now has the basic Superman, or rather Supergirl, power set: flight, strength, invulnerability (slightly more limited than the Kryptonians). No heat vision, X-ray vision or freeze breath, though. Most of the possible variants on superpowers have already been rung over the past 80 years or so, and there's nothing startlingly new on that front here - there's even a passing mention of a billionaire with a utility belt and no powers - but that's fine. It's the personal journey of the superhero that we're concerned with here.

There certainly are a few familiar tropes: rescuing an airliner, for example. And when it comes to the transgender experience, there are some notes that anyone who's aware of what that community has to deal with will also find very familiar (because they really do happen all the time): the verbally and emotionally abusive, rejecting father; the "friend" who says terrible things; the radical feminist who refuses to accept a trans woman as a woman, who sees only a man invading women's space yet again. But all of these are dealt with in a way that I found emotionally true and deep. Seeing Danny simultaneously being a selfless, powerful, courageous superhero and thinking of herself as a selfish, powerless coward because of years of abuse was heartwrenching.

I can't give a higher recommendation than this: when I got to the end, if there had been a sequel available I would have bought it immediately. This book sets out to be a compelling superhero adventure and also an exploration of what it's like to be trans, and for my money succeeded admirably in both.

Speaking of money, I received (only) a review copy via NetGalley in exchange for my review.

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Monday, 2 January 2017

My Top 16 Books for 2016

It's that time again: time to do a retrospective post on the best books I read in the previous year. Earlier instalments are here: my top 15 books for 2015 and my top 14 books for 2014.

I didn't read as much last year as in the previous two years, which surprised me a little when I saw the numbers. I wasn't as obsessive about noting and reviewing everything I read, and a couple of books I read didn't have Goodreads entries, but I don't think that made all of the difference between the 101 books I read in 2015 and the 77 in 2016; I was also busy writing, and wasn't commuting for most of the year (so I didn't listen to as many audiobooks, or read during lunchtime at work).

Goodreads doesn't seem to have the same graphic as it has the last couple of years - at least, I can't find it - but I managed to find the URL that gives me a list of the year's books (https://www.goodreads.com/review/list/941876-mike?read_at=2016&sort=rating&view=list, for future reference), so I can do a similar summary.

I read 11 books out of 77 that got 5 stars, compared to 11 out of 101 in 2015 and 9 out of 104 in 2014, which is a good trend. I also read 12 3-star books (19 in 2015, 23 in 2014) and one 2-star book (2 in both 2015 and 2014), leaving 53 4-star books, by my calculation (68 in 2015 and 70 in 2014).

Either I'm getting better at picking books I like, or my standards are slipping. Either way, the bulk of the books I'm reading continue to get 4 stars, meaning I enjoyed them and they were well done, but they weren't so well done or so enjoyable that they deserved a fifth star. Three-star books I didn't dislike, but they were either lacking in execution or failed to enthuse me; a two-star book, for me, is pretty much a failure, neither well executed nor enjoyable, though showing some hint of potential that lifts it above one star. I haven't read a one-star book in several years, because I don't finish books that bad (and don't rate books I haven't finished).

So: the countdown. Let's start with the best of the 4-star books, the ones that almost made it across that 5-star threshold. Competition was fierce in this group, with only four places available, and several others almost made it.

Links are to my Goodreads reviews.

15. Knight Moves, Walter Jon Williams. One of Williams' complex, engaging meditations on the posthuman condition, which I enjoyed despite its occasional pessimism.

14. An Accident of Stars, Foz Meadows. Portal fantasy is back, and this is a fresh, contemporary take on a genre that dates back to the 19th century, but was particularly popular several decades ago. A diverse, and mostly female, cast struggle and are realistically impacted by the problems they face in a well-imagined world.

13. Burning Bright, Melissa McShane. Smoothly written, excellently edited, with an exciting and absorbing plot, this is Patrick O'Brien meets Julian May: psychic powers in the Regency British Navy. Misses out on five stars only because I didn't feel the worldbuilding had been thought all the way through.

12. Hallow Point, Ari Marmell. Noir and urban fantasy collide, pick themselves up and make a smart remark. A principled but pragmatic hero and a clever plot kept me glued to the pages.

Now the 5-star books. A really good crop this year, and it was hard to rank them.

11. Elements of Fiction Writing - Characters and Viewpoint, Orson Scott Card. The only nonfiction book in this year's top list, this guide to characterisation is written with insight and clarity. (From the days before Card went off the deep end.)

10. Ancillary Mercy, Ann Leckie. While not as amazing as the first book (because some of what makes it amazing is no longer a surprise), this is a worthy conclusion to the trilogy, beautifully layered and doing clever things with point of view. More of an unfolding of meaning than a conventional plot, something that's hard to do at novel length.

9. A Christmas Gone Perfectly Wrong, Cecilia Grant. This lovely little romance demonstrates that novellas aren't always just novels that haven't had enough development; sometimes they're tightly plotted, beautifully executed stories of exactly the right length.

8. Dreams of Distant Shores, Patricia McKillip. A collection of lyrical, beautifully imagined short pieces which demonstrate that magic doesn't have to have known rules if you're using it to bring the characters to realisations, not to solve their problems.

7. The Facefaker's Game, Chandler Birch. A gripping adventure for a character I wanted to see succeed, in a grimy, slightly steampunkish setting that's skilfully depicted.

6. Magonia, Maria Dahvana Headley. This author has perfect command of voice, as I noticed in the beautiful Runyonesque she published on tor.com a couple of years ago, and here that mastery is on full display - along with a suspenseful plot, vivid characters, and fantastical worldbuilding. Also a great reflection of the experience of living with a chronic illness.

5. The Long List Anthology, David Steffen. These short stories came close to Hugo glory, and they deserved it; emotionally powerful, excellently crafted, richly human and sparkling with imagination, they even managed to make me like some kinds of stories that I usually don't.

4. Futuristica, Volume 1, Chester W. Hoster. I set this above The Long List Anthology simply because the fresh, vigorous, engaging stories in this volume were more consistently to my taste. Clever mashups, trope twisting and up-to-the-minute science abound.

3. Darkhaven, A.F.E. Smith. Complex, conflicted, distinctive characters negotiate multiple intertwined subplots in impeccable prose to form a compelling story. 

2. Vigil, Angela Slatter. Avoids the risk of being just another cookie-cutter urban fantasy through flawless execution coupled with an unusual richness of development and variety in the characters' relationships. 

1. Chalice, Robin McKinley. As beautiful and emotionally resonant as you'd expect if you've ever read any of her other work, and set in a fascinating world.

Because two of the collections had male editors, this makes 7 out of 15 books with male authors or editors, and 8 with female authors (even though the content of those two collections is, by a small margin, majority female). I tend to read roughly 50:50 male and female authors, without setting out to do so, though I sometimes have runs of one or the other; 10 out of last year's 15 authors were male, and 4 out of 2014's 14, for comparison, so out of the 45 books that have made my top lists in the past three years, 21 are by, or are edited by, men.

I look forward to more excellent books in 2017.