Friday, 15 June 2018

Review: Penric's Fox

Penric's Fox Penric's Fox by Lois McMaster Bujold
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Another installment in the novella series, jumping back in time to between Penric and the Shaman and Penric's Mission. This time it's a mystery, and a decently handled one; Bujold can write a good mystery, as we've seen in some of her Vorkosigan books. It's a kind of fantasy police procedural, in which the fantasy elements are essential to the plot; both the motive for the murder and the approach to solving it rely on them.

Like the other Penric books, I enjoyed it without feeling that it ever approached the heights of Bujold's best works. The emotional stakes are lower, somehow, the emotional depths shallower, the insights less remarkable. It was good, but never threatened to become great.

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Review: The Story Peddler

The Story Peddler The Story Peddler by Lindsay A. Franklin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book managed to sneak a dystopia onto my reading list, which is quite a feat; and, even more impressively, it also managed to make me enjoy it.

The trope of forbidden magic is overplayed, but this was a good variation on it: magic users/artists who are given the choice by an oppressive regime of being either co-opted or suppressed. The protagonist, a determined and capable young woman (my favourite kind of protagonist), takes the option "neither of the above" and connects up with other dissidents, while the despot's daughter struggles to temper his tyranny. Eventually, the two story threads connect, leading to a climax which took me by surprise with its suddenness.

Well crafted, with characters that deepen beyond their stereotypes because they all have a backstory and all want something, which they're prepared to pursue at personal cost. There's no softpedaling in terms of the outcomes for the characters - several of them come to tragic ends - but it skillfully avoids becoming dark, hopeless, or cynical.

Not quite amazing enough to make it to five stars, but certainly very good, and I expect to include it in my Year's Best list this year.

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Review: Burn

Burn Burn by James Patrick Kelly
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

James Patrick Kelly is an excellent craftsman of the short story, but this novella introduced too much while resolving too little. I found the behaviour of the protagonist's wife inexplicable, and it was unclear what anyone wanted or was trying to achieve - nor did anyone seem to achieve much.

It seems to have been primarily intended as a (excuse the pun) burn on Thoreau, but there was no real substantive critique of the utopia built on Thoreau's ideas, and not much exploration of its ideology, despite plenty of opportunity. Missing the chance to be a novel of ideas, it also failed to have much of a plot or explore character in any depth, and I was left wondering what the point of it was.

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Wednesday, 6 June 2018

Review: Zero Sum Game

Zero Sum Game Zero Sum Game by S.L. Huang
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Extremely well done, but too murdery for my taste.

Often, when I get ARCs from Netgalley, I have to make a concerted effort to ignore the copy editing issues (in the hope that they'll be fixed by publication time) and focus on the actual story. Not in this case. The ARC is practically spotless. Not only that, but it displays excellent writing craft; it's polished, professional, slick.

It's difficult to say precisely what the genre is here. Is the protagonist technically a superhero, given her incredible real-time mathematical ability which enables her to perform staggering physical feats and makes her a crack shot (and given the villain's powers as well)? Is it a contemporary SF thriller? An urban fantasy with mental powers instead of magic? It could be any of the three.

It has the feel of a blockbuster movie, with lots of chases, guns, and explosions... and a high body count - which, for me, was a problem. One of the characters hangs a lampshade on the fact that the protagonist's first cut at a solution to a problem is generally to shoot someone, but even after she starts trying not to do that so much, she still does it. Of the 29 people killed in a citywide disaster at one point, she killed at least four of them.

Another character, the only one she trusts, is a psychopath with no human emotion who kills even more people, but he at least has a moral structure, albeit a rather odd one, to guide him in who he does and doesn't hurt. The main character vaguely feels that maybe not murdering so many people would be preferable, but doesn't act on that feeling too much. She also never even comes close to being arrested for any of her many murders.

In the end, even though the writing itself is close to flawless, this deep flaw in the main character was too much for me, and I dinged the book a star based on my personal preference against antiheroes.

Disclaimers: I am on a writers' forum with S.L. Huang. I received a copy via Netgalley for review.

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Wednesday, 30 May 2018

Review: Fair Coin

Fair Coin Fair Coin by E.C. Myers
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is, for the most part, a capably-written YA novel with a speculative present-day setting, and I did enjoy it.

I had a couple of problems with it, though. The first was one of belief. I seem to be having a lot of those lately, for some reason; I just find it hard to suspend my disbelief when I'm confronted with something that doesn't make sense, particularly when it seems as if it doesn't make sense because it's been created entirely in the service of the plot, and not because it arises in any way organically from the situation. I'm going to need some spoiler tags here.

(view spoiler)

The other thing I had a problem with is that this book exhibits a strong Wyldstyle effect, by which I mean that the protagonist is rather dense, not particularly courageous, and fairly self-absorbed (though he experiences some growth in moral courage and concern for others in the course of the story); meanwhile, there's a female character who is much smarter, more effective, more interesting, and in all ways more fitted to be the protagonist, but never gets to be anything more than the love interest and protagonist's prize.

(view spoiler)

I put this on my "await ebook price drop" wishlist some time ago because of a recommendation from somewhere, I think a blog or podcast, based partly on its having won a major award. But given those two significant issues, I don't think I will go on to read the sequel, and while it was good enough to deserve four stars, it doesn't get any awards from me.

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Monday, 21 May 2018

Review: New Seeds of Contemplation

New Seeds of Contemplation New Seeds of Contemplation by Thomas Merton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I deliberately read this very slowly, a few paragraphs at a time, letting it soak.

It's an odd book. Some chapters I wanted to quote in their entirety; others I could have done without completely. Sometimes the author seems deeply insightful; other times, he seems like someone who thinks he's deeply insightful but is actually just opinionated.

It doesn't have a single argument or a single direction. It kind of wanders around, sometimes on topic, other times not so much.

At its best, it directs the reader towards a profound contemplation that's beyond words, symbols, forms, and any possibility of description. At its worst, it's the ramblings of a mid-20th-century Catholic with all the limitations of worldview that implies.

On the whole, I recommend it to people who are interested, as I am, in the Centering Prayer tradition and similar movements, but there are better (by which I mean, more immediately practical and better structured) books around from people such as Cynthia Bourgeault, Thomas Keating, and Richard Rohr.

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Friday, 18 May 2018

Review: Summerland

Summerland Summerland by Hannu Rajaniemi
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I sampled this author's Quantum Thief, but bounced off it because it was both very high-concept and in a setting with a lot of new things in it that aren't immediately explained. This one is high-concept, but the setting is more understandable: the world of British espionage in an alternate 1930s, in which Lodge and Marconi have discovered a way to talk to the dead and to help people who die to remain conscious on the Other Side. There's a rivalry in Britain between the dead spies of the Summer Court and the live ones of the Winter Court. Lenin has formed the core of a powerful collective dead consciousness in the Soviet Union known as the Presence, and Stalin, exiled, is trying to undermine the Communists throughout Europe without exactly selling out to the West. There are lots of double agents, including the illegitimate son of the Prime Minister - the PM in question being fairly obviously based on H.G. Wells.

It's skillfully done, and threads the difficult needle of having disillusioned, unhappy characters who still strive to be better, or to do something worthwhile. That helped me to relate to them as protagonists. They inhabited a grey world, but not a completely hopeless or pointless one.

One of the main characters was the PM's illegitimate son, already mentioned; the other was a female agent who had been consistently passed over and not taken seriously because of her gender. When she discovers from a Russian defector that the PM's son has been turned, nobody believes her, and she has to decide who she can trust to help her bring him down.

Cue lots of complicated maneuvering and spycraft, along with some original worldbuilding around the concept of the conscious dead.

The plot managed to be complex and yet comprehensible, another thing that's hard to do. Overall, both impressive and enjoyable.

I received a copy from Netgalley for review.

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Thursday, 17 May 2018

Review: The Quantum Magician

The Quantum Magician The Quantum Magician by Derek Kunsken
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My background in quantum theory consists of understanding about one sentence in three in the quantum theory chapter of Goedel, Escher, Bach (which I thought was reasonably good going). And that was some years ago, so I am far from qualified to talk about the physics of this book.

That didn't matter to my enjoyment of the story; I just took the various bits of esoteric physics as sufficiently advanced technology being indistinguishable from magic, and concentrated on following the complicated heist.

I do enjoy a good heist, and this is definitely one. There's the "assembling the team" sequence, the planning, the mini-heists gathering resources, the things that go wrong, getting in, getting out, the moments when we learn about plans beneath plans, the team member who betrays the crew... all the classic elements are here. I will say that I could have done with more clarity about exactly why the client needed the mastermind's help, and the topology of the journey they were trying to make, but even though it wasn't really clear to me until late in the piece where they were, where they wanted to be, and how the two were connected, I enjoyed the ride.

The characters all tend towards the haunted, miserable end of things, though not all of them are without idealism or a higher purpose. And the Puppets (genetically engineered miniature humans created to have a reaction of religious awe towards the people who created them, who have turned on those people and imprisoned them in order to protect them) creeped me all the way out; that was a nasty situation, complete with torture and abuse, and I personally could have done without it. I also didn't love the foul-mouthed genetically engineered undersea being. But I can admire an author's skill without enjoying all the things he does with it, and the whole complex book was managed with great skill - and came to a conclusion that I found satisfying, in the end.

I received a copy from Netgalley for purposes of review. The author and I both participate in the same writers' forum, which is how I became aware of the book.

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Review: A Closed and Common Orbit

A Closed and Common Orbit A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This author's first book took a step away from the standard space opera focus on adventure and action to focus more on the interactions and development of the characters. That was what people who liked it liked most about it, and in this second book in the series, she seems to have picked up on that and made it all about the characters. There's not a great deal of action (though there is a very light heist near the end), which isn't to say that there isn't tension, challenge, and danger. Both of the main characters have goals to pursue and difficulties to overcome, and in doing so, they change and develop and grow and come to their own resolutions.

The narrative weaves together two stories in two different places and timeframes, and there's a shared character between them, going by two different names in the two different stories. She's the main character of the flashback story, and a secondary but important character in the "present time" story, and both stories deal with the same theme: becoming a person.

Jane (as she's known in the flashback story) is one of a crop of girls created to sort junk in search of useful material; it's cheaper and more efficient to use girls than it is to use robots. She is, effectively, equipment. When she escapes and meets the AI of a downed starship, she begins to discover her personhood, in part through a children's VR story.

In the other story, she's known as Pepper, and (picking up from the first book, where both are minor characters), she has convinced Lovelace, another ship AI, to take the risk of inhabiting an illegal body which passes her off as human. Taking a new name, the AI struggles with the limitations and unfamiliarity of her new situation, makes an alien friend, and shapes an identity for herself in the process.

While the pace sometimes slackens to linger on description for a touch longer than I would prefer, the narrative questions are clear and compelling, and move the book along well. The characters' relationships and their internal emotional life are very much the focus, but were so well handled that I never lost interest or felt disengaged from their struggles.

Overall, a fine effort, and I look forward to the sequel.

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Tuesday, 15 May 2018

Review: Arabella The Traitor of Mars

Arabella The Traitor of Mars Arabella The Traitor of Mars by David D. Levine
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was very capably written, and on paper I should have loved it; determined young female protagonists who are intelligent and competent and independent are a feature I look for in books, and here we have one. Somehow, though, I never connected with Arabella emotionally, and while I didn't dislike the book, I also didn't love it.

There could be several reasons for that. One reason may be the stiff, cool language of the (alternate-universe) Regency setting. I've enjoyed and emotionally connected with books with that kind of setting before, though, such as Melissa McShane's Extraordinaries series. It wasn't my dislike of the gory battle scenes, though I'm not a fan of those; they came late in the book, when I was already feeling disengaged.

The other main problem I had, and perhaps the main reason for my coolness towards the book, was that I was working so hard to maintain suspension of disbelief. The basic setting (a solar system in which there is air everywhere and sailing ships can voyage through it between the planets) requires quite a robust effort to swallow by itself; I'm OK with the planetary-romance conceit of an inhabited Mars full of canals and an inhabited Venus full of jungles, but the physics of the air-filled solar system made no sense to me, and nor did the idea that people pedaling to propel the ships would make a significant difference to their interplanetary speed. I have a similar struggle with the dragons in the Temeraire series (who cause suspiciously few supply problems, and can fly amazingly well, for such enormous creatures). I appreciate that part of SFF is suspending disbelief, but some premises make it harder than others.

On top of this unlikeliness, too, there are a few others layered. For example, the inciting incident of the whole book is that the heroine refuses to accept the Prince Regent's plans to conquer Mars and exploit it for Britain. I appreciate that, as he mentions in his afterword, the author was trying to write an anti-colonialist novel, but I'm afraid I never believed Arabella's rebellion against the comprehensively held mindset of her time. Even when I reminded myself that the American colonies had rebelled and thrown off British colonial government, I still couldn't help thinking that that was emphatically not because anyone there respected the native inhabitants and considered resisting colonialism as such to be a matter of self-evident natural justice. On top of which, Arabella is an example of the White Saviour trope; real resistance to colonialism was almost universally driven by indigenous peoples themselves, and although the Martians play an important and respected role in the resistance, they don't initiate it and they're not at all the centre of the plot.

And then there's a fortunate and somewhat unlikely coincidence at the all-is-lost moment that saves the day, putting a further heavy burden on my already overstrained suspension of disbelief.

Ultimately, I think I didn't love it because I didn't believe it.

I haven't read the previous two books in the series; there's enough catch-up at the beginning that I wasn't confused about the events of the backstory, but it may be that I would have been more emotionally engaged, and perhaps even believed more easily, if I'd been through the process of following Arabella's earlier adventures, rather than having them briefly summarized. Who knows?

Your experience of the book may be different, and I will say that the writing craft is at an admirable standard. I couldn't quite bring myself to drop it down to three stars, but it's at the lower end of four, for me.

I received a copy via Netgalley for purposes of review.

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Friday, 11 May 2018

Review: The Epic Crush of Genie Lo

The Epic Crush of Genie Lo The Epic Crush of Genie Lo by F.C. Yee
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I've shelved this as both "YA" and "supers", because the protagonist is 16 and the overall feel is of a supers novel. The youth of the protagonist doesn't at all mean immaturity, though, and the superpowers are connected to the classic Chinese "folk novel" Journey to the West.

I happened to read a version of Journey to the West recently, and it was interesting to see a modern disapora Chinese take on it. I have to agree with Genie Lo's assessment that Tripitaka was pretty pathetic.

Genie herself is the reincarnation of someone who features heavily in Journey to the West - exactly who is a surprise to her and to the reader, so I won't spoil it. But she is also very much a modern Chinese American teenager, dealing with parental and internalized pressure to excel, get into a good college, and get a good job, not least so that she can move away from the Bay Area and therefore her mother.

There is a minimal amount of high-school angst, which is kept in the background; Genie is not so much angsty as angry, and takes no crap from anyone, least of all Sun Wukong the Monkey King. Despite her attraction to him, which is leavened pretty strongly with irritation.

Her voice is a delight. "This was a car accident, and now burning clowns were spilling out of the wreckage," she remarks at one point. There are a good few unexplained Chinese terms; Wikipedia was my friend here, though I did read some of the book on a plane where I couldn't look up words and phrases on Wikipedia from my Kindle. None of the Chinese was essential to understanding the story, and the emotional tone of the reference, if not its exact meaning, was always clear from context.

The editing was mostly good, though a few more commas might not have gone amiss, especially to avoid "let's eat Grandma" errors. There were sometimes exclamation marks and question marks ending the same sentence; I put this down to voice, though it's technically questionable. Neither of these things diminished my enjoyment enough to drop a star.

Overall, the pacing was compelling; the balances and interactions between plot and character, high schooler and superhero, and eastern and western were well judged, and produced a book that had some depth to it; and I enjoyed the main character's voice so much that I felt five stars were justified.

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Thursday, 10 May 2018

Review: The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There seem to be two camps regarding this book.

Camp 1 likes it because of the warmth and kindness of the characters.

Camp 2 finds the characters wishy-washy and the plot lacking in tension.

I found myself in Camp 1, and (given the complaints I've seen from Camp 2), was surprised at how much external and internal challenge the characters faced. It's true that the tension wasn't generally sustained over a long period; people either resolved their issues or set them aside as unsolvable and moved on, like adults do. But there were definite threats; I was expecting something along the lines of Nathan Lowell's Share stories, where brewing decent coffee or finding something profitable to make some side money with are major plot points, and the stakes seldom get much higher than that (at least early on; later, a tragic death comes out of nowhere, which put me off the series). No; the crew's survival and their wellbeing are threatened several times, convincingly, and they have to work together to overcome their problems.

I appreciated that at one point two people who dislike each other have to work together, and while they still dislike each other afterwards, there's more of a connection.

Was it a touch slow-moving? At times. It does tend to linger on things that are atmospheric and create a mood, but don't do a lot to advance the plot, although they often do deepen the characterization. I can also see how one reviewer I know found the manic Kizzy more annoying than cute. It's a book not without its flaws, but if you go into it with the somewhat counter-genre expectation of it being more of a warm, human story than an action movie, as I did, it has its definite strengths as well.

One oddity: the phrase "some time" (a certain amount of time) is consistently, and incorrectly, styled as "sometime" (an indefinite point in time); there's also "anytime" when it should be "any time". Also, there are question marks and exclamation marks combined in the same sentence. Otherwise, the editing is good.

The worldbuilding is largely the standard space opera stuff, including a diverse set of alien races that are still mostly bipedal (and, despite various numbers of digits, have apparently adopted the decimal system as a standard). I was dubious about a couple of the astronomical details, but there was nothing fatal to my suspension of disbelief. The galaxy, we come to understand, contains people who are corrupt, greedy, cruel, deluded, violent... but the main characters are not those things. They've overcome, or are currently living with, significant issues, and these have made them, on the whole, kind, accepting, and gentle beings. Even this isn't universal; the fussy engineer, though he has a character development arc, ends up still fussy, prickly, and poor at social interaction, though we do learn why.

I came in with the vague impression that this might be a happy-happy feelgood book in which nothing happened and everything was handed to the characters with no real struggle. That isn't the case, though it's somewhat closer to being the case than in more standard action-oriented space operas.

I certainly enjoyed it enough to read the sequel, which I found even better.

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Review: Magic Eater: An Uncanny Kingdom Urban Fantasy

Magic Eater: An Uncanny Kingdom Urban Fantasy Magic Eater: An Uncanny Kingdom Urban Fantasy by M.V. Stott
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Genuinely funny, in a bumbling British loser-who-knows-he's-a-loser kind of way. Content warning for plenty of contextual swearing.

Scruffy around the edges as far as editing is concerned; the commas, hyphens, and especially apostrophes need a good tune-up, but I only spotted one homonym error (birth/berth).

This is urban fantasy with a strong British flavour, a high body count (to which the protagonist is not indifferent), and an action-packed plot. It uses the old amnesia trope, but does a decent job with it.

Part of a series which in turn is part of a larger world; I would read another if I was in the right mood.

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Tuesday, 1 May 2018

Review: The Time Rescuers

The Time Rescuers The Time Rescuers by Alan Crosby
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is an interesting mixture of YA and the spiritual/cosmic genre. Although the author states that he's a Christian, it isn't as explicitly Christian as one might expect from that; there are some points made more or less in passing about modern materialism and lack of belief in a spiritual dimension, and about modern (lack of) morality, but the cosmic setup is not classical Christian cosmology.

It's a YA adventure, with three kids brought from different times and places to take part, on humanity's behalf, in the fight against spiritual invaders with ill intent. While they agreed to do so, they weren't exactly volunteers, and one of them (the New Zealander) quite understandably doesn't completely trust their recruiter. They only have the recruiter's word, for some time, that his side is the right one, though the villains prove their villainy soon enough.

I felt that the kids were the weakest part of the story. Usually, with an ensemble cast, there's something that each one can do that nobody else in the cast can do, and that another randomly selected person couldn't do as easily, and I didn't feel that either of those things was true here. In fact, for a long time, the kids' contribution wasn't looking as if it would be particularly significant; and in the end they seemed more catspaws than heroes, though each of them did step up at various times (and make mistakes at various other times, driven by their emotions). There was some character growth and some growth as a team.

I did enjoy part of the story being set in New Zealand, and appreciated that the kids were motivated by concern for their parents. Overall, I liked it, but I didn't love it, and wouldn't go out of my way to seek out a sequel.

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Monday, 30 April 2018

Review: The Rosetta Man

The Rosetta Man The Rosetta Man by Claire McCague
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It's not often, these days, that I ding a book a whole star just for poor copy editing; I either put up with it if the book is otherwise good (but note it in my review), or else stop reading if the book is otherwise nothing special.

This was good enough that I finished, but not so good as to make it to four stars, and the low standard of copy editing was a big part of the problem. There are multiple sentences where words are either dropped or added, or where the sentence was partially revised and has a ghost of its earlier self mingled with the new phrasing. There are also multiple examples of required apostrophes gone missing, or incorrect apostrophes inserted; a good few comma splices; homonym errors as basic as passed/past and too/to, and several other incorrect vocabulary choices; mispunctuated dialog; garbled idioms, which give a sense of English being the author's second language, though I don't think it is; and all the usual, common errors, like misplaced or missing commas or hyphens. I marked more than 80 errors, and there were some I skipped.

It's told in a rather old-fashioned omniscient third person, wandering among several different characters' perceptions, and while some of the characters are interesting and even likable, I didn't get a great sense of depth in any of them. They're all more or less alienated, cynical, contemporary people with no big goal or sense of a higher purpose that they're pursuing relentlessly (not even the Greenpeace activist has such a purpose). This leaves the plot rudderless and reactive, making it more a series of events than a plot as such, and leads to a soft ending with not much resolved. The book raises a couple of questions about humanity, but nothing we haven't seen in the genre many times over many decades, often with a lot more depth and sophistication.

I did like the wry and quirky title character, which saved this otherwise mediocre novel from a two-star rating.

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Thursday, 26 April 2018

Review: Spell of Catastrophe

Spell of Catastrophe Spell of Catastrophe by Mayer Alan Brenner
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It wasn't until I looked this up on Goodreads, partway through reading it, that I realized it had originally come out in the 1980s and had been reissued as an ebook. That made sense of the fact that there were weird glitches in some of the word spacing, while the overall copy editing (apart from the fairly common confusion of "discrete" with "discreet") was good, better than the cover would have led me to expect.

The story itself is well done, too. It's reminiscent of Fritz Leiber, Roger Zelazny, and somewhat of Jack Vance, mainly because of the precise diction of some of the characters, though fortunately they are not the alienated, amoral bastards that Vance writes. Instead, they are "vaguely disreputable" (the sobriquet of one of them), but mostly striving to do the right thing, even if they're not always completely sure what that is. One of them spends a couple of paragraphs musing about it. Lovable rogues, in other words, or at least laudable rogues. Chaotic good, if you want to talk D&D alignments.

There are three main characters, one of them (for narrative reasons which eventually become clear) a first-person narrator, and the other two observed in omniscient third person. The first is a noir-style detective, and the other two are a doctor (among other things) and a wizard whose life goal is to understand magic enough to undermine the gods. They start out separate and eventually come together; this is a difficult approach to pull off, because it risks the reader being jerked out of one story just as they're getting invested and dumped into another story that they don't yet care about. The author, for my money, manages it well.

There are moments of wry humour, moments of high drama, and a good deal (perhaps in places a touch too much) of the magical equivalent of technobabble. Lots of things go boom and crash; there's quite a body count, though mostly in the background, and the characters register it as regrettable rather than just dismissing it as the way life is. It's capably done, and I enjoyed it.

I'd read the rest of the series, if they were priced a bit more attractively.

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Review: Basic Witch

Basic Witch Basic Witch by Harmony Hart
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I recently read an article entitled We Need to Start Taking Young Women's Love Stories Seriously, which gave me a lot to think about. I had that article in mind as I read this book.

Let's be clear upfront: this is not a book that intends to be taken seriously. It's fluff. It's cotton candy: bright pink, insubstantial, and not intended to satiate. It's written quickly to be read quickly, and it needs a good proofread (which I doubt it will ever get), not least to sort out the horrible mess that the author has made with missing and misplaced quotation marks. It's full of cliches, down to and including the first-person narrator checking out her reflection and getting the Power just when she needs it at a moment of crisis. Fortunate coincidences abound on every side. The heroine gets handed basically everything she wants, with little or no effort to earn it.

It is, in short, a wish-fulfilment fantasy - or perhaps we should say a witch-fulfilment fantasy.

And this, in itself, tells me a lot. More of that after this brief summary.

The heroine is a self-described "basic white girl". Her backstory is: Family all deceased, series of jobs she hates, series of failed relationships, lots of student debt. She is explicitly extremely ordinary and completely undistinguished.

As the story begins, she has fortunately inherited a New Age shop from a relative she didn't know she had, but is losing customers because she's not New Agey enough for their expectations.

By another stroke of luck or fate, she stumbles through a portal into a world where she's quite possibly the Chosen One, but definitely a powerful (if completely untrained) witch. This portal opens every seven years, very few people pass through, and there's no TV on the other side, but somehow slang and fashion are right up to the minute (in other words, there's no attempt at thinking through the extremely light worldbuilding).

Everyone (with one significant exception) wants to be nice to her. Just for showing up, she's set up with a profitable business, a place to live (which she gets to redecorate), a new wardrobe, high heels that don't hurt or cause her to trip, a handbag that isn't heavy no matter what she puts in it, a makeover, and a new instant best friend (who, despite her outgoing nature, doesn't appear to have any existing friends to complicate matters), and is surrounded by a plethora of hot single men. Also, her cat can talk to her now, and will live as long as she does. I have to admit I'd like that one myself.

See what I mean about wish fulfillment?

There's one complication: when she stumbled through the portal, she fell over a dead body, and she's a suspect in the murder. But only one person seriously suspects her. Sure, he's the local cop, but everyone knows he's an idiot, and they don't take much notice of him. It does, however, mean that she wants to clear her name by finding the actual murderer, something the cop is probably not capable of doing.

I thought about flagging some of what follows with spoiler tags, but to be honest, if anything in this book surprises you you probably aren't old enough to be reading it.

Any serious attempt to solve the mystery takes a back seat for a long time to being heaped with various kinds of gifts, which the heroine "deserves" after "all she's been through". When we do at last return to the mystery-solving in earnest, the heroine comes up with a plan which, while not exactly bad, is as transparent as a well-washed window, and is intended to get her suspect (the only person who hasn't been nice to her) out of the way so that she can search for clues. "It will be as easy as pie!" she says, then, "Spoiler alert: It was not as easy as pie."

Well, actually, spoiler alert, it was. Sure, her initial attempt to search the premises was thwarted, but she then (in a strong echo of how she came through the portal in the first place) discovers by pure luck an alternative way in, which also explains how the crime was committed, and she's able to find clear evidence almost immediately. Plus the suspect, who's crazy but not a complete idiot, has seen through the well-washed window and comes back and confesses. So as far as a mystery plot goes, it's more of a gesture in the direction of one than it is actually one.

As a wish-fulfillment fantasy, though, it's remarkably comprehensive, and that's what I found interesting.

Leaving aside the magical parts, apparently the dreams of a 30-something basic white girl include being given a lot of nice stuff that make her life comfortable and enjoyable, but which she doesn't really have to work for (because she deserves it); having a fun friend to go out with and lots of attractive men to talk about with said friend; and... here's the significant bit... having a man around who she's sexually attracted to, but who will stay with her, protect her, provide emotional support for her, sleep in the same bed with his arm around her, and will not push her to have sex (because it's against his principles). This is in distinct contrast with a male wish-fulfillment fantasy I started to read a while back; it just assumed that the attractive woman would naturally have sex with the hero. That's only one of the reasons I didn't finish it.

I'm in two minds about the whole lack of effort and struggle for the main character. On the one hand, by most rules of writing, this is bad writing and boring, but then, most rules of writing are laid down by men. Is it a bug, or - given that this is, after all, a wish-fulfillment fantasy - a feature? What tips me in the direction of "feature" is the thought that many people in general, and women in particular, are experiencing life in the United States at the moment as an unavailing and never-ending struggle, so the very lack of struggle is part of the wish-fulfillment.

I'm still marking it down to three stars, mind you. It's so utterly expected, so full of cliches, so clearly dashed off quickly to serve a market that, in my mind, it doesn't earn four stars, even though it's enjoyable enough for what it is. But it doesn't need to be a great book to give a degree of insight into the concerns of its target audience, and that is what I mostly gained from it.

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Monday, 23 April 2018

Review: Sorcerer to the Crown

Sorcerer to the Crown Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

For most of the time, this was well on track to be a 5-star book, but I felt it went sideways near the end in a few ways.

First, the good. There are plenty of people trying to write in a 19th-century voice these days; there are few who do it this well. I suspect if I were a scholar of early-19th-century literature I'd be able to see ways in which it isn't perfectly authentic, but given that I'm not such a scholar but only a well-read layman, it rings true to me. It doesn't, however, make the mistake of capturing the 19th-century voice so authentically that the prose becomes overly verbose and the plot slows to a crawl; the voice is mainly in the character dialog, rather than the narration. It's true that the characters' dialog is sometimes wordy, but seldom so much so that I found it tedious.

Then, the author has a laudable tendency to put the squeeze on the characters, placing them in untenable situations with a set of bad choices of which they are forced to choose the least bad, thus driving the plot forward. This is particularly marked early on, before they take hold of the plot for themselves and start driving it by their own decisions - also a textbook development which makes for good momentum.

The characters are also trapped within the expectations and prejudices of 19th-century Britain, and struggling hard to escape. Everyone around them takes it as read that an Englishman is better than anyone else in the world, including, of course, an English woman, and has the natural right to trample over anyone else in consequence. Given that the protagonists are a freed black slave and a half-Indian woman from an impoverished background, and another important character is from a country which is trying not to become part of Britain's colonial empire, this makes for some excruciating moments.

The problems, for me, came at the end. I'll be vague in order to avoid outright spoilers.

Firstly, a minor character introduced early on as a Woosteresque dandy with an overbearing aunt suddenly becomes something completely different - so different that, for me, it left the original role he and his aunt had played in events making no sense anymore.

Then Zacharias, the very serious, dutiful Sorcerer Royal, reveals that he has made a costly choice that I didn't completely believe at first, given his ambivalent attitude to the person he did it for; but I eventually accepted it, somewhat uncomfortably, as something he would do. I also didn't believe for some time that he would place Prunella, his cotagonist, in a situation she was manifestly unsuited for in multiple ways, and compound his error by completing a trope which had been hovering throughout the book, thus committing himself to a situation that I was confident would be a deeply unwise choice for both of them and would result in a great deal of misery. I primarily felt this because Prunella had convincingly revealed herself as having "no scruples whatsoever"; she had been wild, irresponsible, opportunistic, self-centred and amoral throughout, but rather than improve on these qualities she got worse, if anything. While writing this review I just now realized that she had made a difficult sacrifice for a good purpose, which directly aided Zacharias, and that does make more sense of the ending.

In short, then, my suspension of disbelief failed towards the end, and lost the book a star which it otherwise had earned.

I listened to the audiobook, and the narrator, Jenny Stirling, does an excellent job throughout.

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Tuesday, 17 April 2018

Review: Monkey: A Journey to the West

Monkey: A Journey to the West Monkey: A Journey to the West by David Kherdian
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This classic Chinese story, like its main character, is not lacking in verve and bombast. Distances are thousands or even hundreds of thousands of miles (the distance from China to India is described as 108,000 miles); most of the characters are massively overpowered, especially Monkey, who stands off the united armies of Heaven at one point; almost everyone is a god or divine spirit or Taoist immortal or Buddhist saint. It's both an over-the-top adventure story and a spiritual allegory, with Monkey as the representative of the Monkey Mind, as well as a classic trickster and a magician.

I was surprised how much Taoism there was in a story about fetching Buddhist scriptures, but I understand that in China the two lived side by side and blended at the edges.

Naturally, the heavenly hierarchy reflects the elaborate and extensive imperial Chinese bureaucracy, full of officials with grandiose titles. Monkey himself insists on the title of the Great Sage, Equal of Heaven.

Given that it's an old story from a culture I'm not well acquainted with, I found it remarkably entertaining, which may be in part down to the translator's selection of incidents to include; the introduction speaks of a tradition of selecting material from the original to create versions adapted to particular audiences. It keeps up a good pace (unlike many older European works), and even has some try-fail cycles as the travelers attempt to reach India. A lot of the cultural references went right past me, and I could have done with a gloss, though it would also have been distracting. As it was, I was able to look up perhaps 40% of the references in Wikipedia on my Kindle, and just ignored the rest; not knowing what they meant didn't have a big impact on my understanding or enjoyment of the story.

The ebook appears to have been generated using optical character recognition from a print version, judging by the occasional odd typo, but it's not bad as such things go. There are one or two homonym errors and spelling mistakes, which I assume are in the print version, but it's generally clean.

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Monday, 16 April 2018

Review: Footprints in the Future

Footprints in the Future Footprints in the Future by TG Winkfield
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Unfortunately, I found this book lacking two important features.

The first was lively, fully-rounded characters. I never did get the three men on the Committee straight; they were so lacking in definition that they blended together in my mind. By the end of the book, some of the characters were beginning to approach definition, but none of them really seemed to be passionate about anything. Even though they were British, they should at least have wanted something strongly and pursued it, if they were to be proper protagonists.

The second issue was the plot, or relative lack thereof, which was a consequence of the unmotivated protagonists. It wandered here and there, with things happening, but there wasn't a clearly defined beginning, middle, or end - or rather, there was a beginning and a middle, but the middle extended to the back of the book; there was no real resolution of anything, because nobody had really been striving for anything in particular.

There are local exceptions to the above generalizations; some of the characters did appear to be motivated in particular directions, and even experienced change, but because this was an ensemble cast, and the group as a whole spent most of the book stumbling from one reaction to another, it wasn't enough to give me a strong sense of structure or character growth.

I received a copy via Netgalley for purposes of review.

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Tuesday, 10 April 2018

Review: Crosstalk

Crosstalk Crosstalk by Connie Willis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There are a couple of things about Connie Willis's comedies. The first is that they're full of unreasonable people who often don't listen very well, and the second is that these people, who we're meant to laugh at, are strongly recognisable types.

That's very much the case in this book. I enjoyed it, but most of the characters don't rise above their types: the sister with terrible taste in men, the sister who's the ultimate helicopter parent, the ambitious executive who values symbols of success above anything real, the office gossip, the anxious older worker, the uptight librarian... I could go on.

None of them listen to each other or to the main character; and none of them appear to do any work to speak of, including the main character, even though a lot of the scenes are at her workplace.

Partly because of these... let's say strongly typed characters, there were things I didn't believe. For example, I didn't believe the main character's love for her boyfriend any more than I believed his for her; he's obviously such a complete tool that he could take a second job as a Swiss army knife, and we see so little of their interaction early on that to me he was a faceless store mannequin. Consequently, I also didn't believe her (rather cursory) reaction to finding out what his game actually was, some time after I'd worked it out from ample clues.

Independently of the characterization, I didn't believe the speculative element (telepathy, with a very specific component to it that was unlikely in the extreme if you thought it through at all).

I didn't believe the 9-year-old hacker, either.

I also thought, relatively early on, that if a particular relationship ended up where it looked like it would end up, I would be very disappointed. It did end up there, but by then I wasn't disappointed; the author had managed to justify it to me in the meantime.

The plot was full of twistyness and complexity, especially at the end, which is another Connie Willis thing. I have to admit she lost me there at last; I just had to accept that everything was going to be OK for reasons.

So I didn't unmixedly love this, and there was a lot I didn't believe, but I did enjoy it. It won't be one of my top books this year, but it was entertaining.

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Tuesday, 3 April 2018

Review: Silence Fallen

Silence Fallen Silence Fallen by Patricia Briggs
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I listened to the audiobook of this, rather than reading it in text form, and something I noticed, in part because of the format, was that there's often a lot of reflection (mostly backstory, or thinking through the implications of newly obtained information or recent events) in the midst of action. This doesn't do wonders for the pacing.

Accents are hard, and unfortunately neither of the voice actors did a great job with the Italian accents; they all sounded Russian to me. Otherwise, though, they did well.

The other major problem here was that the two points of view (first-person Mercy and third-person Adam) were deliberately not told in chronological order with each other. I assume this was done to increase tension, but what it actually increased for me was confusion. Likewise, the first Adam section starts at one time, flashes back to a slightly earlier time, and then flashes back again to a still earlier (but also recent) time, which was confusing without apparent purpose.

What saved this story for me, despite these minor issues, was that here we have a protagonist who has been established in the previous books in the series as such an awesome badass that we know that when she's dropped down in a strange place naked and with no resources, it's everyone else who is in trouble. I was reminded of one of Lois McMaster Bujold's stories in which exactly this happens to Miles Vorkosigan.

It was a fun ride, and I'll happily keep following the series.

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Saturday, 31 March 2018

Review: The Reign of the Departed

The Reign of the Departed The Reign of the Departed by Greg Keyes
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If I wanted to get highfalutin' about it I'd say that each character in this book represents a masculine or feminine archetype. Errol is the Nice Guy (interestingly, effectively emasculated through much of the book, since he's in an artificial body that lacks genitalia); Aster, who put him in that situation, is the Witch, and also the Weird Nerd Girl; Dusk is the Warrior Princess; Veronica is the Man-Eating Seductress Monster, though she's mostly trying not to be; the dog-boys represent one kind of toxic masculinity, the creepy teacher another; there's a Controlling Father and a Monster Mother, and all in all it's the collective unconscious up in here.

With all that going on, it could easily have failed to be a successful adventure story, but it didn't. It's a fetch quest, but a well-motivated one with plenty of twists and strong sensawunda, even if some of the setting is a bit sketchy in terms of practicalities. Nor are the characters simply archetypes; they're people with complicated relationships among themselves, which shift and change throughout.

For me it was solid, but didn't quite achieve greatness, despite more than the usual amount of depth to the relationships. The characters are fleshed out, but could be more so, and there were moments when I felt the narrative drive faltered.

Lots of potential, though, and it ends in a way that, while completing this story, leads clearly into a sequel.

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Wednesday, 28 March 2018

Review: Hart & Boot & Other Stories

Hart & Boot & Other Stories Hart & Boot & Other Stories by Tim Pratt
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Tim Pratt is an author of two very different aspects.

The aspect I encountered first was in his Marla Mason stories (as T.A. Pratt), in which unpleasant people do unpleasant things to other unpleasant people, with a good deal of meaningless and often kinky sex, graphic violence, and occasional drug use. That's not at all my thing, so I didn't stick with the series for very long, even though they were well written.

The other aspect I encountered through a story that is collected in this book - the one about the mysterious video store - which I read in an anthology. (I can't remember which one; I read a lot of anthologies.) It's a lovely story with just a hint of sweet romance and plenty of joy and hope. Since it had been years since I read T.A. Pratt, and I'd forgotten the name and didn't make the connection, I then picked up a book under the Tim Pratt byline, Heirs of Grace, which was wonderful and redemptive and had a magnificent ending, far better than I'd anticipated. It also refreshed the tired urban fantasy genre.

With that experience in mind, I happily grabbed The Wrong Stars, hoping that it might do the same for the tired space opera genre, and was not disappointed.

So when I saw this collection (which Amazon recommended to me), and saw that the video store story was in it, I picked it up without even sampling it, because I thought it would be in the bright aspect of Tim Pratt.

Some of the stories are, but some of them - I think a majority - are in the dark aspect, including the title story. There's some very ugly stuff here, including a story which is a prequel to Heirs of Grace.

Plenty of people like that sort of thing, but I am not one of them. Though there are some stories in here from "bright Pratt" as well as "dark Pratt", if I'd known before I bought the book exactly what was in it, I wouldn't have picked it up. I always seem to end up regretting it if I don't read the sample first, so this is my reminder to myself to always do that.

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Review: The Fuller's Apprentice

The Fuller's Apprentice The Fuller's Apprentice by Angela Holder
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The setting of this book is neither dystopian nor purely utopian, but it is a worthy world: one in which people are generally well-intentioned and helpful, where almost everyone unequivocally condemns violence, where the whole society is built around working at honest trades. There's no ruling class, as such; the guildmasters fill that role, and they rise in their trades rather than being hereditary rulers. Everyone belongs to a guild - not necessarily their parents' guild; though that's often the case, anyone can apprentice to almost any trade that appeals to them.

One of those guilds is the Wizards' Guild, although in D&D terms they're not wizards, but clerics, empowered by the divine Mother. They can heal, open "windows" which allow them to see through time and space within limits (and hence establish the truth of disputed events in court, like having universal CCTV), and move objects with a form of telekinesis. They are unique in being specifically called to their guild by the Mother, rather than choosing it. And each one has a familiar, an animal they must work with and without whom they have no power, in order to keep them humble.

Built upon this background is a well-told, compelling story of a young apprentice fuller who, through his poorly-thought-through typically-early-teenage actions, ends up as an assistant to a journeyman wizard. As the wizard travels round the country districts on a circuit in order to qualify as a master, they encounter bandits and other people who are not fully aligned with the worthy society, as well as natural disasters and other major challenges. In the process, the journeyman's faith is tested, the apprentice learns a lot (including by making significant mistakes, because his good heart and sense of adventure aren't yet sufficiently tempered by wisdom), and important things change for the society as a whole, setting up for the next book to be quite different. Though the society is worthy and most of the characters good-hearted, there's no lack of conflict or challenge here.

While there were a good many apostrophe glitches and a few typos, this is otherwise well-edited, and certainly very capable from a storytelling perspective. I'll be bearing this series in mind when I'm next in the mood for something noblebright.

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Wednesday, 21 March 2018

Review: The Prisoner of Limnos

The Prisoner of Limnos The Prisoner of Limnos by Lois McMaster Bujold
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Penric and Desdemona is basically a serial, I've realized: linked novellas that, while to some degree complete in themselves, also make up a larger story. In this episode, the very slow-burn romance continues, and we have a caperesque jailbreak.

It has many of the classic Bujold elements - wry/wise/witty observations; an occasional touch of profound theological reflection; a protagonist going into a situation that on the face of it is impossible, with inadequate resources, and somehow improvising a solution; moments of tension, comedy, and insight; a push-and-pull romance.

It suffers a little from the author's recent tendency to softpedal. She famously said once that she plots by thinking of the worst thing that could happen to a character, and then having that thing happen, and in the earlier Vorkosigan books and the earlier Five Gods books, that is the case; but no longer. This one even has a couple of lucky coincidences (though, of course, with the setup here they could be divine intervention) to get the main character out of trouble. That, I suspect, is why, although I like these books, I don't love them, and they don't engage me as deeply as the earlier ones. Which is an important writing lesson for me, if nothing else.

I listened to the audio version; Grover Gardner does another good job in his rich, cheerful voice.

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Thursday, 15 March 2018

Review: Witches Gone Wicked

Witches Gone Wicked Witches Gone Wicked by Sarina Dorie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Early on, I said to myself about this book, "Won't be amazing, might be amusing," and I was right.

There are signs that it might possibly have started life as Harry Potter fanfiction. It's set in a magical school. The principal, Dumbledore Bumblebub, is hardly ever available to talk to about what's going wrong (which is plenty); he does have a corny Southern US accent, which deserts him in a moment of crisis, to distinguish him from his model, but like Dumbledore, he's gay. The potions alchemy teacher is mean, nasty, and suspicious (though he does have good hair), and wants the defence against the dark arts arts and crafts teaching job, which is cursed; nobody's ever lasted more than a year at it for several years now. (view spoiler)

Our protagonist, a young not-quite-qualified teacher, has just taken the art teacher job. Hijinks ensue.

Hijinks including some sexual bits which I personally found unerotic, but which some readers will probably object to. I guessed fairly early on who the villain was who'd been killing off art teachers. (view spoiler)

The pre-publication copy I read from Netgalley revealed that the author has little grasp of the use of apostrophes (especially anywhere near a plural), is shaky on commas, and struggles with homonyms; I hope a really good copy editor gets to fix this. I also wonder if she really did her research into which people from the Indian subcontinent wear turbans, what their religion is, what their names are like, and what you might find underneath the turban.

Apart from these issues, the story was well constructed, the protagonist protagonised rather than sitting about and wringing her hands (and rescued herself at the critical moment), the secondary characters were quirky and easily distinguished, the story problem drove the plot as it ought, and in general it was capably done and enjoyable.

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Friday, 9 March 2018

Review: Goldenhand

Goldenhand Goldenhand by Garth Nix
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was well on the way to being a five-star book, but I'm deducting a star because of an odd lapse of protagonism at around the two-thirds to three-quarters mark (I was listening to the audio version, so I'm estimating; this also means I may misspell a character name below):

(view spoiler)

After that inexplicable protagonistic lapse, though, we do get a good conclusion. At first, I thought we were too close to the end to fit a resolution in, and that it would go over into a second book, but that turned out not to be the case; it's a fine resolution, well paced and satisfying.

In this book, Nix has properly mastered third-person omniscient point of view, and makes full use of it. In a couple of the earlier books in the series, he mostly follows one person's point of view tightly, but occasionally pops into someone else's head for a sentence or two, which gives a "head-hopping" effect; here, this is replaced by proper omniscient, including telling us things the characters don't know and informing us that they don't know them. It's a somewhat old-fashioned point of view now, but there's nothing wrong with it, and he uses it well.

The audiobook is narrated by a woman with a pleasant British voice, but on a number of occasions she misplaces sentence emphasis and makes a phrase sound like it means something different, leading to momentary confusion for me while I worked out where the emphasis should have been placed. She also has a habit - particularly marked early on - of pausing after a line of dialog and then giving the attribution, which makes it sound as if the dialog tag is a separate sentence. I assume this was because she was getting out of the character voice.

Overall, despite the brief lapse of protagonism, this is a fine entry in a series I enjoy very much. You probably wouldn't want to start here, since it draws together threads from all the previous books, but if you're already a fan, you'll definitely want to get this one.

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Thursday, 8 March 2018

Review: The Curious Affair of the Witch at Wayside Cross

The Curious Affair of the Witch at Wayside Cross The Curious Affair of the Witch at Wayside Cross by Lisa Tuttle
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Lisa Tuttle is a highly respected name in SFF, and her prose is very capable. Apart from a few instances of unnecessary coordinate commas, the copy editing was flawless, and (unlike a lot of books with a Victorian setting) both the language and the background details here felt period-authentic to me.

Perhaps a little too much so; the Victorians were terrible for overwriting (by modern standards), and there are a couple of parts of the book that move slowly, threaten to choke on their own detail, and don't progress the plot. The pacing, in fact, I found somewhat uneven, with a very rapid, almost rushed, solution coming right at the end.

The other big problem I had with the book was that the viewpoint character is not the protagonist, and does not solve the mystery (though she does contribute by finding things out; she's not completely useless as a detective, and is a better one than, for example, Watson). Her male partner, who is like - very like - a younger, less eccentric Sherlock Holmes, figures it all out and informs her at the same time as the other interested parties in a couple of traditional parlour scenes; since the partners are in different places a lot of the time, a great deal of the mystery-solving goes on offstage. I found this less than satisfying in terms of a detective novel.

It's an occult detective novel, and the occult part becomes unequivocally occult relatively late; struck me as unlikely; and is a massive red herring which doesn't have any real bearing on the central mystery. It could have been removed without loss to the plot, and in fact I feel that removing it might have made for a slightly better book - certainly a more cohesive one. On the other hand, I found it more interesting in many ways than the actual mystery itself, and felt the detectives were also more interested in it than they were in the case they'd been hired to solve.

Overall, these issues combined to drop my rating to three stars. Though I enjoyed the book while I was reading it, my enjoyment was mild, and it never really caught fire for me.

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Wednesday, 7 March 2018

Review: Overclocked: More Stories of the Future Present

Overclocked: More Stories of the Future Present Overclocked: More Stories of the Future Present by Cory Doctorow
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Cory Doctorow has this thing he does. Reading a number of his stories in a collection together makes it more obvious than reading one here and another there, with long gaps between, so let's see if I can articulate what that thing is.

Firstly, he takes a big, unlikely premise based on exaggerating present technopolitical conflicts.

Then he pushes it all the way over the top, and takes it to an unrealistically dystopian place with no apparent way out.

Meanwhile, he distracts you with fireworks: bold characters being awesome (actually, his characters are all pretty much the same character, and I suspect that character is an idealized version of himself); big ideas that other writers might build a whole story around, thrown about like confetti as offhand mentions and background; highly condensed technopolitical arguments that sound convincing, but are so compressed, and so full of references, that you'd need to be deeply immersed in the same ideas and conversations as Doctorow himself in order to fully understand them, let alone engage with them.

And finally, he takes that unrealistically dystopian story and (madly gesturing and setting off geek-culture flares to distract the reader from the improbability of everything) turns it around, ending with a clear note of hope and techno-optimism.

He does this with great verve, relentless pace, and usually not much in the way of actual plot.

I don't think anyone else could do it. William Gibson lacks the optimism, and Bruce Sterling the panache; Neal Stephenson lacks the pacing, and Rudy Rucker the discipline. Charles Stross perhaps comes closest to the blend of gonzo imagination and storytelling chops, but his work seems more considered and less showy, and his overall tone less hopeful.

It's an entertaining show to watch, even if I'm not always in the mood for it and can find plenty in it to criticize.

I did skip a couple of stories in this book; one, based on the Siege of Leningrad, because the introduction seemed to be warning of a darker story than I wanted to read, and one, "The Man Who Sold the Moon," because I'd read it before, relatively recently, and didn't love it so much that I wanted to read it again. It has what I sometimes describe as "not a lot of plot per thousand words".

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Review: Provenance

Provenance Provenance by Ann Leckie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ann Leckie has the perhaps enviable problem of having written a first novel so (deservedly) successful that her future work will always be compared to it. Ancillary Justice is a tough act to follow, and for me, this didn't reach the same high mark, though it was good, and got better as it went on.

The main issue for me was the protagonist, who starts out indecisive, ineffectual, whiny, and with a petty motivation for poorly-planned actions. This does leave room for a lot of character arc, and she does become someone much more admirable eventually, but it takes a long time.

Meanwhile, in Leckie's trademark style, she plays with our heads with gender pronouns. In the Ancillary trilogy, everyone was "she" (a cultural convention); here, it appears that the human society recognises three genders, men, women, and nemen, and possibly that people get to choose which one they are when they become adults (indeed, as part of becoming adults) - that's never completely clear. In fact, the whole issue of gender is at one and the same time completely in the background and irrelevant to the plot, and also constantly obtrusive because of the pronouns. For me, that made the story harder work than I felt it needed to be, and I'm afraid I resorted to reading the nemen as men and ignoring the whole issue (since it made no appreciable difference). Perhaps the "made no difference" part was the point.

There's a theme, lightly sketched for most of the book, of being able to choose your own identity and other people respecting that, and also a theme of historical authenticity and connectedness. The title refers to the culture's obsession with objects that were present at particular historical moments, which gives them a kind of mystical significance independent of their value in other ways; several such objects are revealed as fakes in the course of the book, and there is some discussion of how this changes things, but I didn't feel that the idea was ever fully explored, or linked clearly enough to the theme of choosing your identity. One aspect of the society is that you can be given someone else's name as their heir, and this makes you, in a certain sense, that person - you can even exercise an office they've been elected or appointed to. If this had been more clearly and strongly brought together with the idea of the artifacts that gain their significance from the occasions they were present on, and the characters who were trying to justify present prominence by past connections, and the Treaty that everyone was trying not to break, and maybe some aspect of the gender differences, I feel the book would have been stronger; as it was, I was left to make my own connections, and not given a great deal to work with in order to do that. It ended up being much more of a plot/character novel than a theme novel, which is fine, but I felt it left a lot of potential on the table - not to mention that the plot was slow-moving and the main character annoying for a lot of the book.

It was better than I make it sound, but not as good as I thought it could have been.

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Wednesday, 21 February 2018

Review: The Emperor's Mask

The Emperor's Mask The Emperor's Mask by Ben S. Dobson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoyed the first book in this magepunk series very much, and this one a little less, though I did still enjoy it.

The main problem was that I figured out at the 42% mark what the detective didn't figure out until the 74% mark: the identity of the villain. I'm not usually good at figuring those things out, so to me it's a sign that the author made it too obvious and/or his detective too stupid, not that I'm particularly insightful.

The author also needs to be alert to the rule for plural possessives: if a townhouse belongs to a family named Stooke, it is "the Stookes' townhouse," not "the Stooke's townhouse". Otherwise, the copy editing was very good, with just one or two minor typos.

Something that I particularly enjoyed was the zest for life that Kadka, the half-orc character, shows. She has a great sense of wonder whenever she encounters magic, and glories in a challenge that means she will have to fight against the odds. Battling against the odds, and against time, is something the characters do a lot, and there are some daring escapes and tense fights. There wasn't anything to quite equal Kadka jumping onto the airship in the first book, but that's a tough act to follow.

Overall, solid, and I would happily read a sequel.

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Monday, 19 February 2018

Review: The Book of Secrets

The Book of Secrets The Book of Secrets by Melissa McShane
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My thought process when I saw this book while browsing Netgalley went something like:

Hmm, set in a bookstore, that's a good start.

Hmm, sweet-but-competent-looking young woman on the cover, also good.

It's by Melissa McShane? Sold!

My experience so far with Melissa McShane is that she writes smooth prose with very few errors, and indeed this was the case. I'm starting to think of her as the other Lindsay Buroker, the one who, instead of ensemble casts with amusing banter, writes determined, sensible, capable young female protagonists dealing with whatever gets thrown at them (supernatural and otherwise).

I did feel with this one, though, that it was somehow lacking in intensity. It shouldn't have been: we have Lovecraftian invaders from another dimension threatening the world, after all, plus a complete n00b dealing with magical politics in the wake of the man who had just employed her hours earlier being murdered, leaving her to deal with suspicious police and a magical bookstore for which the manual has gone mysteriously missing. (Having more than once been in the position of taking on a challenging new job with no documentation, I identified with that part.) By taking over, she's stepped on the toes of another young woman who saw herself as the designated successor, and isn't being mature about it. And there's a hot, dangerous monster hunter who turns up regularly to save the heroine (though she then immediately does something sensible and effective to underline for us that this is not a damsel-in-distress scenario; I appreciated that).

The thing is, the invaders have been threatening the world for centuries, and they're not threatening it any more than usual; they're dangerous, they kill someone in front of the heroine and pursue her and attack her, but I never found them ice-in-my-veins terrifying, somehow. The magical politics is conducted relatively politely by people who are mostly nice and helpful. The hot monster hunter doesn't offer much encouragement to the heroine to suggest that he's attracted to her in turn and things could become steamy between them. The murderer is notable for absence from the plot most of the time; the urgency of solving the murder seems low, amid everything else that's going on. And a couple of sudden shifts of what had seemed like intractable positions in the rivalry subplot kind of defuse that situation.

I certainly didn't dislike it. The characters are appealing, the setting is well thought out, the infodumps are competently incorporated in educate-the-n00b conversations. I'd happily read a sequel. I just thought it could do with more urgency.

I received a copy from Netgalley for review.

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Review: The Sisters Mederos

The Sisters Mederos The Sisters Mederos by Patrice Sarath
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I went into this somewhat hesitantly; "wealthy merchant house has a great fall, daughters seek revenge" isn't, to me, the most instantly promising premise.

In the event, I liked it. The daughters are skilled and determined; they take a lot of risks, but that's a thing that real young people do, and they carry it off. They're willing to brave a lot in order to unwind the mystery and gain their vengeance, though, in the event, the specific ways in which they invest most of their effort (gaining money from their former peers both by winning money at gambling and by robbing them at the point of never-adequately-accounted-for guns) don't turn out to be important to the plot's resolution. When the resolution does come, it comes somewhat abruptly and thoroughly.

The question of who can be trusted and who is on their side is prominent throughout, and the answers change a lot, sometimes suddenly and without much preparation, at other times with some foreshadowing. Although the sisters do keep some secrets from each other, at least for a while, the plot doesn't rely on this to create conflict, and they mostly confide in each other and work together.

On the whole, I felt the plot and characterization were competent and well handled, and the tension was maintained well. It isn't my new favorite, but it's a decent effort.

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Friday, 9 February 2018

Review: Into the Moonless Night

Into the Moonless Night Into the Moonless Night by A.E. Decker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The third of this trilogy (though the final line leaves the door open for a fourth in the series) adds a new genre. So far we've seen fairy-tale comedy of manners/horror and steampunk mad science mystery; now we get shifter dystopian with a prophecy/Chosen One. I don't usually read dystopian, so I'm not familiar with the tropes, but this isn't a very tropey author in any case.

The extremely slow burn of the romance subplot continues, but is not resolved. In fact, the potential couple are in different places for much of the book.

There's plenty going on here: high stakes, characters new and old struggling for their own varied agendas, multiple clashing factions, and a race-supremacist villain (there's a nice bit about how, being mediocre, he has to slant the playing field in order to make himself superior). As with the earlier two books, I couldn't figure out in advance how all these threads would eventually come together into a satisfactory ending, but in this case I felt that they didn't completely come together. The ending felt abrupt, and a bit of a cheat; part of it was handed to the characters by someone they couldn't control or predict, rather than being earned by them directly.

It's a pity, because it was a good ride up to that point. That minor stumble isn't quite enough to drop it down to three stars, but, along with a few other small glitches and (in the pre-publication copy I got from Netgalley) an abundance of copy editing issues, the ending made this my least favourite of the three books.

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Thursday, 8 February 2018

Review: The Meddlers of Moonshine

The Meddlers of Moonshine The Meddlers of Moonshine by A.E. Decker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The interesting thing about this series is that it's one continuous story, but each of the books is in a different genre. Each book is complete in itself-no cliffhangers-but you wouldn't want to jump in partway through; each one sets up the next. (I received all three books together from Netgalley for review).

This one is steampunk, and if I didn't know better I'd blame the Steampunk Curse for the many copy editing issues on display. It is possible to have a well-edited steampunk book; it's just extremely rare, and this one is jam-packed with incorrect applications of the coordinate comma rule, along with some typos (mostly words left out of sentences), several misplaced apostrophes, and a couple of homonym errors (discretely/discreetly, site/sight). It's a pity, because it's another well-told story, this time of travelers in a steampunkish city who must battle corrupt and hypocritical authorities to bring about justice and solve an intriguing mystery.

The first book was relatively simple, almost all from the viewpoint of Ascot, the central character. This introduces a couple of other viewpoints, most interestingly the zany Rags-n-Bones. I was a little worried that the characters would fail to develop and remain just a collection of a few traits and a couple of tics, but each of them gains more depth, most of them gain more backstory, and they work more as an ensemble cast and less as a hero with a bunch of sidekicks (as in the first book).

I happily progressed to the third book, which turns out to be a dystopian, with shifters.

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