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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