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 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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