Tuesday, 11 December 2018

Review: A Handful of Hexes

A Handful of Hexes A Handful of Hexes by Sarina Dorie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I came into this series at book 3, which doesn't seem to have done any harm; there's a good, but not excessive, amount of catch-up provided.

I found the first book entertaining, and felt that this one rose a little higher, showed a stronger grasp of the author's craft in general.

Having said that, there's not, unfortunately, a really strong central plot. The protagonist is trying to achieve a lot of different things: find out more about her mother (who's reviled as a wicked witch even among people who don't have the strongest moral compass); get her fellow teachers to like her; help her students in general, and several of them in particular, to gain the skills and knowledge they need to (literally) survive in the magical world; find out what happened to her vanished ex-boyfriend Derrick; learn magic; and there are a couple of other subsidiary goals, mostly to do with relationships. This does muddy the story, since while she's always pursuing some goal (and not achieving it, though she does make progress sometimes), the goals are so many and various that it almost feels like she doesn't have a clear agenda.

This is how real life is, but fiction sometimes benefits from simplification. Perhaps if the goals meshed more closely, if there were more instances where she was progressing several of them at the same time, it would help.

Setting this aside, the character grows, her tribulations are tense and entertaining, and overall the book worked for me.

(Content warning for a scene in which Clarissa has a sensual interaction with a number of disembodied hands.)

I received a copy via Netgalley for review.

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Review: Hexes and Exes

Hexes and Exes Hexes and Exes by Sarina Dorie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read this straight after the previous book (I got them both from Netgalley at the same time for review), and so the two blend together a little in my mind. This one, however, takes the slightly squicky sexual elements present in the previous book (notably an encounter with a pit full of disembodied hands) and turns them up to 11. We have a siren student who can't help drawing boys to her and struggles not to kill them; a weird push-pull dynamic with a fellow teacher who the protagonist is both drawn to and repelled by, who does and doesn't want a relationship with her; various dreams; a unicorn who acts as a minor antagonist while representing the kind of sexist jerk who can't take a hint, and who the protagonist... obliges in a particular way for reasons that seem good to her at the time; and finally, something that would be a spoiler if I detailed it at all. The sexual elements are so numerous, so varied, and so on the edge of just plain wrong that I personally found this an uncomfortable book to read.

Apart from that, it progresses the protagonist's attempts to solve several mysteries, learn more magic, and help her students, though she's still pursuing so many competing goals that the plot's momentum is diminished by rushing in too many different directions at once.

I'm going to have to think about whether I want to continue with the series. They're good, and they've managed to move beyond Harry Potter pastiche to become their own thing, but I generally look for protagonists who have a much stronger sense of who they are, what they're pursuing, and what they are (and more importantly, are not) prepared to do to get it. Perhaps I'll give it one more chance.

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Monday, 26 November 2018

Review: Science Fiction

Science Fiction Science Fiction by Eric Scott Johnston
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The title of this book gives an accurate indication of its contents, but only in the sense that it's sorely lacking in imagination.

Almost everything in the wider galactic civilization works exactly the same as it does on Earth (that is, in America in the 21st century); the author even points out explicitly several times that things work the same as on Earth. Judges even use gavels, which (I understand) real-life Earth judges seldom do these days; it's largely a TV and movie thing. Now, this could be an attempt at satire by someone who doesn't really understand how satire works, or it could just be lack of imagination or not caring about making the background any richer or more developed than a painted theatre flat; I'm not sure, but I am unimpressed.

One difference: in the galactic civilization, you buy things by laughing at them. If that was how things worked here, I was at no point in any danger of buying the book (which I got via Netgalley for review). The attempted humour fell completely flat for me.

If a supposedly comedic story doesn't work for me as comedy, it needs to work as a story, and this didn't. The main character (he's not a protagonist) is one of those aimless, hapless losers who blunders from crisis to crisis making things worse. That may have been meant to be the funny part. I counted exactly one time where he took action that was effective; the rest was either pratfalls or being rescued by someone else. Nevertheless, as the mediocre white guy, he naturally ends up winning.

There are a number of winks in the direction of Hitchhiker's Guide, but this is no Hitchhiker's Guide.

I don't usually mention the copy editing of books I get from Netgalley, on the grounds that they often undergo another round of edits after I see them. But the acknowledgements of this book mention a copy editor, so I'm going to say something. Either this is the version from before any copy editor got a look at it (in which case, if you release it to reviewers, you should expect to be dinged), or the copy editor did an incredibly poor job with an even more incredibly poor manuscript. There were errors on practically every Kindle page. Even if two or three very skilled editors worked on it between now and publication, they would inevitably miss things, because there are just so many basic problems. The punctuation might as well be random, and there are all the classic errors: missing past perfect tense (frequent); apostrophes in the wrong places; inconsistent capitalization, including of names; you're/your confusion, in both directions; changes of tense, number, or grammatical direction in the course of many sentences; vocabulary words used incorrectly (and not even obscure vocabulary words: "attenuated", "credulity", "unrequited", "duplicity", "conflagration", "quested", "nondescript", "deigned"); homonym or spelling errors (breeched/breached, timber/timbre, relived/relieved, salon/saloon, kinds/kids, spec/speck, cuddle fish/cuttlefish, Marshall/Marshal, compliment/complement, curios/curious, silicone/silicon); dangling modifiers; comma splices; missing question marks in questions, and a question mark where it doesn't belong; it's all here, a perfect storm of incompetence with the basic tools of a writer. The first step in being ready to write a book is the ability to write a coherent, comprehensible, and correct sentence, and do so consistently.

There's a gag that never really pays off about a starship powered by "postmodernism philosophy" - not "postmodernism", not "postmodernist philosophy", but "postmodernism philosophy" (or, in one case, "postmodernismism philosopy").

I finished it largely because I was very mildly amused and kept hoping that it would get better, but it never did.

About once a year, I seem to get suckered into reading a book that I end up giving two stars. This is the one for this year.

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Review: Castle of Lies

Castle of Lies Castle of Lies by Kiersi Burkhart
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Initially, this seemed unpromising. Nasty, scheming characters only out for their own advantage, fighting among themselves? Not really my usual preference. Fortunately, it took a turn for the noblebright rather than the grimdark when an external threat got them (mostly) working together.

There's a lot of suffering and injustice and loss and death and filth (which never seems to make anyone sick) and desperation along the way, and again, that's not my favourite thing, not in such heaping quantities. Ultimately, though, I was happy with the resolution.

There are plenty of internal as well as external conflicts for the characters, and it presents imperfect people handling a bad situation beyond their control very well.

It takes a bit of concentration to follow the quick shifts between multiple first-person viewpoints, but I didn't have any trouble telling the characters apart.

I wouldn't read a sequel, as a matter of personal taste, but if you like this kind of thing, it's well done.

I received a copy via Netgalley for review.

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Review: Nightchaser

Nightchaser Nightchaser by Amanda Bouchet
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In a better world - one in which thousands of terrible books didn't drag the average down - this would be an average book. It's not bad. It's OK.

It's written to a template that a lot of books are being written to these days, which is a practice that tends to produce an undistinguished result. A plucky young woman with a traumatic past leads a band of ragtag rebels (or other people on the edge of the law) in space-operatic adventures.

Its debt to popular franchises is fairly obvious. Rebels vs evil empire, and a key player in the evil empire is closely related to the protagonist: Star Wars. Phasers: Star Trek. Yes, they're actually called "phasers".

The worldbuilding, such as it is, is very space-opera-standard-issue. Any time it goes anywhere near science, it gets it wrong. There are magical healing lasers; bullets don't work in space because they need oxygen for the sparks (that's actually built into the propellant, or it can be); a few days of charging via the ship's solar cells on a planet is enough to bring it to full charge, which is all it needs to get out of the gravity well of the planet (by some mysterious mechanism not explored) as well as hyperjump long distances; a small two-person craft can be used as an aircar and can also get out of the gravity well and perform hyperjumps; neither of these appear to use fuel or reaction mass; an increase in white cell count gives you, not leukemia, but a superior immune system so you never get sick (and your blood cures others); "purifying herbs" are used for "detox". The mention of floating cargo pallets suggests that there's antigravity, and that this also provides artificial gravity in the spacecraft and perhaps has something to do with the propulsion, but it's never explored at all, even in a passing mention.

There's a "midsummer festival" celebrated, seemingly at the same time, across multiple planets. In reality, it isn't even midsummer at the same time all over one planet.

There's a quotation from a famous (fictional) poet. The poetry is awful.

It's technically dystopian, which nearly made me quit it a couple of pages in, but I thought I'd give it a chance. It's also technically postapocalyptic, since Earth has been destroyed by nuclear war - the only evidence of anything nuclear; all power appears to be solar. Both of these would normally be an automatic "no" from me.

It's crammed absolutely full of misuses of the coordinate comma rule. Apart from that, and a few typos, the copy editing is mostly clean.

So why did I finish it? Well, the actual story, the adventure with a bit of romance thrown in, is well done. We start with a motivated protagonist in a dynamic situation. The stakes are personal, the action scenes are engaging, the tension escalates, the characters (at least the viewpoint characters) are more than cardboard cutouts, the conflicts are, if somewhat obviously set up, strong and compelling. If you mainly care about storytelling - and most readers do - this is a competent, even capable book. It's entertaining.

There are dozens like it, though, and I don't often read those kind of clone-army books because I'm usually disappointed at the missed opportunities to go beyond the template. Sometimes I'm pleasantly surprised. This time... eh, it was OK.

I received a copy via Netgalley for purposes of review.

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Sunday, 4 November 2018

Review: The Lord of Stariel

The Lord of Stariel The Lord of Stariel by A.J. Lancaster
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Aspects of this book (magical connection to the estate; incipient romance between lord and servant) reminded me of Robin McKinlay's Chalice , though this one has a much more down-to-earth, less lyrical and mystical tone. Even in the pre-release version I got from Netgalley for review, it was well-edited, with very few issues.

I do have to say that I spotted the villain very early on; it was pretty obvious who had what to gain from the chain of events. It was also obvious to me who was going to be chosen as Lord of Stariel, more for plot-related reasons than anything else. However, there were a couple of plot twists later on that more or less made up for it.

For a reluctant protagonist, Hetta does very well, taking on what has to be taken on with determination and competence. The secondary characters, their interactions and conflicts, are all well depicted, the magic is fresh, and despite the obviousness of some parts of the plot, I enjoyed the journey and would happily pick up a sequel.

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Review: The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future

The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future by Kevin Kelly
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Kelly is a techno-optimist, and while I am too, I'm not quite as unflaggingly rose-coloured-glasses as he is (at least in this book). I think he occasionally tips over into naivite, in fact, particularly when he minimises the dangers of bad actors and misinformation. (To be fair, the book was written before Brexit/Trump, and we were all more optimistic in those long-ago days of 2015.)

He is, though, an insightful commentator on technology, particularly internet technology and the various social changes that arise from it, and the book is well worth reading - as long as you apply a bit of a discount to the optimism. He divides the book into sections covering various trends he observes developing and accelerating, like sharing, remixing, filtering, and tracking; illustrates them clearly, in straightforward, engaging prose; and makes some predictions, which, like all predictions, should be taken with salt, but which are mainly intended to be thought-provoking rather than necessarily accurate in every detail.

The overall theme is: the world is changing, and if we understand how it is changing, we'll be better positioned to make the best of it. I think this is a sound thesis, and he illustrates it well and argues it (for the most part) convincingly.

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Review: The Flowers of Vashnoi

The Flowers of Vashnoi The Flowers of Vashnoi by Lois McMaster Bujold
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I'm nearly at the point of giving up on Bujold's new work. It's mostly in the form of novellas, which lack much development, particularly of the plot. This one, in particular, is quite linear: problem is discovered, problem is... not really solved, or resolved, but moved one step towards resolution with a lot remaining up in the air.

The wit and competence of the characters is no longer enough by itself to keep me engaged.

The voice work in the audiobook is by Grover Gardner, who seems to do all the Bujold audiobooks. Normally he does an excellent job, but in this one, it was occasionally unclear to me whether a character was speaking aloud or reflecting silently, and in one scene, it was hard to tell which character was talking at times. He also misplaced sentence emphasis slightly now and again.

Overall, then, this was mediocre for me, and I'd suggest it as for completists only.

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Monday, 22 October 2018

Review: Daisy's Run

Daisy's Run Daisy's Run by Scott Baron
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I wasn't especially surprised to find out, at the end of this book, that the author works in Hollywood (as an on-set doctor). A lot of it only makes sense if you apply Hollywood logic; consists of Hollywood cliches; or makes mistakes that Hollywood makes.

For example, people in real life don't sit bolt upright after they wake from a nightmare. It's a Hollywood cliche, to convey an internal experience in a visual medium.

The far side of the moon is constantly referred to as the "dark side"; anyone who knows any actual astrophysics knows that both sides of the moon get light, in a cycle that produces the phases of the moon. There's even the old myth of human brains using only a fraction of their processing and storage capacity, which a doctor should know is not true.

Things sometimes work in a way that those things simply wouldn't work, because plot and/or cliche. This includes a device that somehow gets more energy out of a system than was put in, covered over by some technobabble. Lights dim when the AI does a complex calculation.

No popular culture is referred to that originates after the book is written, which is a very common fault of this kind of book.

About halfway through I also started to notice that nobody seemed to have any backstory, and the ship was coming from a vague place for vague reasons, without apparently having any cargo or other raison d'etre. That eventually turned out to be kind of a feature, but... well, let me talk about the most annoying thing.

The most annoying thing is a protagonist who seems to go out of her way to cut off anyone who's about to explain what's going on. After she's done this a couple of times, it becomes painfully obvious that the author is doing it to maintain the tension. When she is finally cornered and has to listen to the explanation, at the 90% mark in the book, it turns out that the reason she wasn't told the secret in the first place is... weak.

"Weak" is a good description of a number of plot points, in fact. At one point, people have to travel physically across the solar system to take a message because their electronic systems have been compromised and they might transmit a virus if they used radio. So why not blink a laser on and off in Morse code?

"One millionth of one percent of the population" have a particular feature - which, if you work it out, means 10 people in a billion, so probably fewer than 100 people in all. That seems too few for what it is.

An electronic tablet has wires inside that can be physically rewired with no tools for a different purpose. Have you ever seen inside one of those? No wires.

Most of the book is in tight third person, following the protagonist; and then we get a few random paragraphs in someone else's POV, before returning to our regularly scheduled viewpoint.

Meanwhile, it's become evident that the genre I thought I was getting is not the actual genre (because secret), and the actual genre is one I strongly dislike.

The protagonist is ridiculously over-powered, possessing every conceivable skill that could help her; there is (eventually, at that 90% mark) an explanation for this, but even then it's clear that she's done things she ought not to be able to do, for vague reasons.

She's also prejudiced, against machines and people who have machine parts (which nearly all her shipmates do). Making your viewpoint character irrationally prejudiced is not a good way to endear her to the reader, even if you feel you have to do so to drive the plot.

A lot of convenient plot points are not foreshadowed until immediately before they become relevant, which (added to everything else) makes me suspect that the book wasn't plotted in advance, but discovery-written, with the author not knowing for a long time what was going on either. Now, discovery-written books can be just as good as plotted books, but only if you put the work in afterwards to do your foreshadowing and make everything make sense, as if you'd plotted it from the start. It shouldn't be possible to tell the difference. (Of course, now that I've said that, the author will probably tell me that I'm wrong and he did plot it through from the start. It doesn't read that way, though.)

There are some pluses. The action keeps moving (apart from some repetitive infodumping near the beginning). The author contrives - and it is a bit contrived - to give the protagonist another woman to talk to, even though she's physically on her own for most of the book. But on the whole, the weaknesses outweighed the strengths for me. The plot is a thin skin over an obtrusive skeleton, and is forced along by one unlikely thing after another, hitting a bunch of stupid cliches on the way through.

I received a copy via Netgalley for review.

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Saturday, 20 October 2018

Review: Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong—and the New Research That's Rewriting the Story

Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong—and the New Research That's Rewriting the Story Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong—and the New Research That's Rewriting the Story by Angela Saini
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Science is objective, right?

But scientists aren't. When science got seriously going in the Victorian era, it was mostly available to well-off men, and they took the assumptions of their culture and projected them back into the natural world.

This book is a thorough and careful attempt to question that bias. It goes through questions like how different men and women really are; whether the conclusions drawn from primate studies and the study of hunter-gatherer cultures in the past hold up today; and what the role of the menopause is in human culture.

While I was reading this book, I heard elsewhere about two studies done into skull capacity in the 19th century. One (by an opponent of slavery) showed that the range of variation in size had a high degree of overlap between races. Another (by a researcher who believed black people to be inferior) focused on the average size, which was lower in the African skulls he tested - something that can be explained well by total body size as a result of nutrition, by the way. Modern analysis of their data shows that both of their datasets were quite similar and supported both conclusions. The author of Inferior makes a similar point; looking at the averages gives a false impression of how dissimilar men and women are in a number of areas, given how much the ranges overlap. Indeed, there are a lot of areas in which evidence for difference is weak or nonexistent.

It's the same with each of the areas the author looks at; whenever it looks like science shows that widely-held stereotypes about men, women, and their interaction are not just stereotypes but biologically essential, it turns out that it's not that simple and not that clear. There's plenty of contrary evidence if you want to look for it.

The overall impression I was left with was that men and women both have similar potential, and that placing one above the other, especially in the way we structure society, is a mistake. Of course, that was my belief going in; but there's plenty of good evidence for it.

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Review: The Speculative Fiction of Mark Twain

The Speculative Fiction of Mark Twain The Speculative Fiction of Mark Twain by Mark Twain
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I've enjoyed, of course, Twain's great classics - Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn. I haven't ever read his most clearly science-fictional work, the Connecticut Yankee. I've read a few of his short pieces, mostly his nonfiction.

Any writer with such a long career is going to produce some inferior pieces, and frankly, I thought all these were among them. Speculative fiction is, of course, a term invented since Twain's time; some of these are presented as nonfiction with a bit of speculation about the nature of reality (the ones about "mental telepathy," basically the observation of coincidences), while others play in one way or another with what might be called Christian mythology. The piece "The Loves of Alonzo Fitz Clarence and Rosannah Ethelton" does hinge on a social change facilitated by technology - basically, Internet dating via telephone - and "The Great Dark" is a fantastical speculation about shrinking a ship down to explore a drop of water at microscopic scale that wanders around wordily for a while, sometimes contradicting itself, and then stops so abruptly and inconclusively that I spent the first part of the next piece thinking it was an odd diversion in the same story.

The next piece ("Captain Stormfield's Visit to Heaven") occasionally looks as if it will explain how the captain is telling the story, but never does; often contradicts itself; rambles on for a long time, and eventually stops, again inconclusively, as if the author has finally run out of ideas or patience with his own story (some time after I did).

The final piece, "The Mysterious Stranger," is again rambling, again self-contradictory, and ultimately an almost nihilistic rant full of repetitive rehearsals of human cruelty that I partly skipped through in a fruitless search for some kind of story shape or plot.

The impression I carried away is that most of these weren't pieces the author cared about enough to plan, edit, finish, or even make coherent, and because of his reputation people published them anyway.

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Review: The Speculative Fiction of Mark Twain

The Speculative Fiction of Mark Twain The Speculative Fiction of Mark Twain by Mark Twain
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I've enjoyed, of course, Twain's great classics - Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn. I haven't ever read his most clearly science-fictional work, the Connecticut Yankee. I've read a few of his short pieces, mostly his nonfiction.

Any writer with such a long career is going to produce some inferior pieces, and frankly, I thought all these were among them. Speculative fiction is, of course, a term invented since Twain's time; some of these are presented as nonfiction with a bit of speculation about the nature of reality (the ones about "mental telepathy," basically the observation of coincidences), while others play in one way or another with what might be called Christian mythology. The piece "The Loves of Alonzo Fitz Clarence and Rosannah Ethelton" does hinge on a social change facilitated by technology - basically, Internet dating via telephone - and "The Great Dark" is a fantastical speculation about shrinking a ship down to explore a drop of water at microscopic scale that wanders around wordily for a while, sometimes contradicting itself, and then stops so abruptly and inconclusively that I spent the first part of the next piece thinking it was an odd diversion in the same story.

The next piece ("Captain Stormfield's Visit to Heaven") occasionally looks as if it will explain how the captain is telling the story, but never does; often contradicts itself; rambles on for a long time, and eventually stops, again inconclusively, as if the author has finally run out of ideas or patience with his own story (some time after I did).

The final piece, "The Mysterious Stranger," is again rambling, again self-contradictory, and ultimately an almost nihilistic rant full of repetitive rehearsals of human cruelty that I partly skipped through in a fruitless search for some kind of story shape or plot.

The impression I carried away is that most of these weren't pieces the author cared about enough to plan, edit, finish, or even make coherent, and because of his reputation people published them anyway.

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Thursday, 11 October 2018

Review: The Iron Codex

The Iron Codex The Iron Codex by David Mack
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Darker than I usually prefer, but done well enough that I still enjoyed it. The characters have some depth beyond "I suffer because of my bad decisions, and also the world sucks!" (though both of those things are true), and the mashup of 1950s spy thriller and ceremonial magic(k) works well.

None of the characters are unambiguously noble, but they do (ultimately) persevere to pursue an unselfish goal at personal cost against powerful opposition, despite being embedded in corrupt systems. I like that kind of story.

At the beginning, the five different viewpoints of seemingly unconnected characters in different parts of the world started to seem a bit much, but I kept going on the assumption that they would eventually connect up, which they did.

I did find the two female characters, and for that matter the two MI6 agents, a bit hard to tell apart for a while.

On the whole, though, this book offers plenty of excitement, lots of wizards, and high stakes, and when I'm in the mood for that kind of book, I like to find one as good as this.

I received a pre-publication copy from Netgalley for purposes of review.

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Sunday, 7 October 2018

Review: Sourdough

Sourdough Sourdough by Robin Sloan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I started reading Robin Sloan when i09 featured Mister Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore on a list of the best science fiction and fantasy for the year it came out. I remarked in my review of that book that it wasn't really SFF, and this one is even less so - except that it does play off the science-fictional nature of our present day, and there is a mysterious ancient culture (in the microbial sense) from a mysterious ancient culture (in the human sense) that seems both mystical and science-fictional.

It's definitely spec-fic-adjacent, at least, and it could comfortably fit into the literary category as well; there's plenty of interiority from the main character, Lois (who narrates the story), and lots of witty or insightful reflection on life, on culture (in a number of senses), on connection and belonging, the place of work in human life, our relationship with microbes, our relationship with technology, our individual and collective relationship with food...

It's a wise book, and also a kind and humane one. Robin Sloan writes like a gentler and less tragic George Saunders, another literary writer who often introduces speculative elements, and brings out the humanity and dignity of his characters with a richness of insight and respect. The most spec-fic thing about Sourdough, or perhaps the least literary, is not the set dressing, but the plot; rather than the decline of an alienated character from helplessness to hopelessness, in the currently fashionable literary mode, it shows us a motivated protagonist learning and growing as she deals with a dynamic situation and makes connections with other people, reducing her alienation and replacing it with a sense of purpose and significance.

Lois - a millenial in a Bay Area robotics startup that claims to be about eliminating tedious work for humans, but is attempting to achieve this by working its employees half to death - is gifted with a sourdough starter by immigrant brothers whose visa has expired. They belong to a mysterious culture known as the Mazg, which has remained hidden among other people in Europe for so long that their origins are myths even to them, and the starter is part of their heritage. As she learns to bake bread and becomes a part of the groundbreaking Marrow Market, located in a former US military base on Alameida Island, she also learns to be happy and discovers what matters to her.

My only complaint about Mister Penumbra was that ultimately the resolution didn't quite hold together in terms of believability for me, and I was watching for similar problems here. I didn't find anything, apart from the fact that Lois employs a $40,000 robot to do work that a $2000 baker's mixer could have done just as well, but even that is somewhat justified in the slightly surreal world which she inhabits. It's full of eccentric and well-drawn characters, and telling moments of delight, humour, and poignancy. As with Penumbra, the author blends reality and fiction so well that I wasn't always sure which was which; I was surprised to discover that Lois Clubs are a real thing.

This is a gem of a book, warm, beautifully crafted, and deep, and I will be surprised if I read a better one this year.

I listened to the audio version, which I thoroughly recommend. The narrator does a great job of bringing us Lois's authentic voice, hitting every sentence exactly right, and adding to the already considerable pleasure I got from the prose.

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Sunday, 30 September 2018

Review: The Shadow Revolution

The Shadow Revolution The Shadow Revolution by Clay Griffith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A promising start to a series which advertises itself as "Victorian urban fantasy"; it's not that steampunky, though there is a steam-powered motorcycle, but if you love steampunk this may also appeal to you.

The characters are vivid and individual enough that I didn't feel I'd read it all before. The editing, while certainly not flawless, is mostly decent.

There is one trope that I particularly dislike in this type of book (PNR, urban fantasy, steampunk, or period adventure romance, take your pick): the heroine gets captured by the villain and has to be rescued by the hero. That trope occurs here, but it's subverted just enough that the authors (for me) get away with it; for one thing, she wasn't captured because she did something idiotic, and she remains as effectual as one reasonably could while in that situation.

While there are hints of romance, there's nothing overt yet, so I imagine there'll be a relatively slow burn through the rest of the series, and while that's a visible thread, it isn't front and centre. The A plot is definitely thwarting the plans of the villain and defeating the werewolves, and it's done with a combination of good fight scenes, clever magic, bravery, and determination on the part of the characters. The main characters change and develop, and in general it's a well-crafted book.

The next one is a bit expensive for my blood, so I will put it on my Await Ebook Price Drop wishlist and wait. They're good, but they're not so amazing I'll pay twice what I usually do.

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Review: They Promised Me the Gun Wasn't Loaded

They Promised Me the Gun Wasn't Loaded They Promised Me the Gun Wasn't Loaded by James Alan Gardner
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoyed the first in this series very much; this one a bit less, primarily because of the main character. It was very skillfully done, though, and entertaining.

It needed to be skillful, because the author saddled himself with some drawbacks. His characters are all excessively powerful, with several unrelated superpowers, each of which on its own would be enough for many superheroes. The main character of this book, Jools, is "human maximum" in any ability you can name (with exceptions I'll note in a moment); has some sort of internet connection in her head that feeds her detailed knowledge of basically anything that's publicly online (including, oddly, the time and location of a secret party that certainly is not public knowledge); and her body regenerates, Wolverine-style.

I said there were some exceptions to her "maximum human ability" thing. Someone that powerful needs flaws, and Jools' flaw is that she's not the human maximum in wisdom, self-control, or for that matter likeability; in those areas, she's about average for a college-age alcoholic hockey player. In D&D terms, her intelligence, dexterity, strength, constitution and even (in certain circumstances) charisma may all be 18, but her wisdom is somewhere around six.

She is, at least, self-aware about it, and does get an arc, which rescued the book for me. In the meantime, I was kept entertained by observations such as "it’s like stashing matter and antimatter in the same suppository. Hilarity ensues," or (from one of her also-superpowered roommates, a chemistry major) "Biology is only chemistry that thinks it’s special."

A less skilled writer, working with such a character (both overpowered and annoyingly flawed at once), might have made all kinds of missteps, but Gardner pulls it off. His world, in which the ultra-rich have become literal vampires, werewolves, and demons, and superheroes known as "sparks" are gifted with powers by the Light to keep them more or less honest, continues to be entertaining, the plot is action-packed without being a bunch of stupid fights for the sake of it, and while Jools teeters on the edge of "annoyingly angsty screw-up" a few times, she does manage to tilt over to the heroic side by the end.

It seems that this series is going to get one book entirely from the point of view of each of the four roommates, which means that there's not a lot of insight into the others' heads (though that may change when we reach the telepath, I suppose). The other roommates risked becoming cyphers in Jools' somewhat self-absorbed world, even Kim/K/Zircon, who was the narrator of the first book. The whole may end up more than the sum of its parts, though, and I'll definitely be watching eagerly for the next one.

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Saturday, 22 September 2018

Review: The Librarians and the Pot of Gold

The Librarians and the Pot of Gold The Librarians and the Pot of Gold by Greg Cox
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is entertaining, and it does what I expected it to do; it's reasonably faithful to the TV series - which is cheesy, but in a way I mostly enjoy - and tells an enjoyable story in a brisk, old-fashioned pulpy style.

By "old-fashioned" I mean that it's adjective-heavy, and has a tendency to "said bookisms" (people "exposit" and "react" rather than just saying things). Some of the sentences, at least in the pre-publication version I read from Netgalley, are long and meandering, and there are a few glaring anachronisms; most notably, the leprechaun in the fifth century is already wearing traditional 18th-century Irish garb, and playing a fiddle (invented more than a thousand years later). There are signs, too, of the writing being done in a hurry, which hopefully will be fixed before publication.

Don't expect literature. Do expect pretty much what you'd get from an episode of the show.

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Sunday, 16 September 2018

Review: The Thief Who Spat In Luck's Good Eye

The Thief Who Spat In Luck's Good Eye The Thief Who Spat In Luck's Good Eye by Michael McClung
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

So much suffering.

So many, many coordinate commas that don't belong (and more than a few typos, vocabulary stumbles, and other punctuation errors).

For both of the above reasons, I enjoyed this less than the first book in the series. It's still good - we still have a motivated protagonist in a dynamic situation, with plenty of skill, determination, and a strong desire to contain a powerful threat to innocents. Amra is a great character, and I'd watch her do her laundry, let alone take on dysfunctional gods and monsters.

I'll perhaps be a little slower to pick up book 3, though, given the amount of torture the author puts her through in this one. Certainly I want to see a character struggle, but as a matter of personal taste, I don't want to see her suffer for suffering's sake, or just to demonstrate how very dark the world is.

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Review: The Thief Who Spat In Luck's Good Eye

The Thief Who Spat In Luck's Good Eye The Thief Who Spat In Luck's Good Eye by Michael McClung
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

So much suffering.

So many, many coordinate commas that don't belong (and more than a few typos, vocabulary stumbles, and other punctuation errors).

For both of the above reasons, I enjoyed this less than the first book in the series. It's still good - we still have a motivated protagonist in a dynamic situation, with plenty of skill, determination, and a strong desire to contain a powerful threat to innocents. Amra is a great character, and I'd watch her do her laundry, let alone take on dysfunctional gods and monsters.

I'll perhaps be a little slower to pick up book 3, though, given the amount of torture the author puts her through in this one. Certainly I want to see a character struggle, but as a matter of personal taste, I don't want to see her suffer for suffering's sake, or just to demonstrate how very dark the world is.

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Review: Stealing Life

Stealing Life Stealing Life by Antony Johnston
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An interesting, and sometimes uncomfortable, blend of sword-and-sorcery (thieves, wizards, city-states controlled by criminals) with a futuristic setting. For a long while, I kept stumbling over the futuristic parts, because the essence of the book is so sword-and-sorcery in tone, feel, and trope.

The main character is a thief with some principles, specifically against killing, which lands him in trouble and in debt to a mob boss. This gives us a highly motivated protagonist in a dynamic situation, and things keep getting worse and worse for him, while the stakes for him and everyone else escalate - a good basis for compelling fiction.

Ultimately, he's not able to purge the corruption in the system, only to minimise its impact on innocents. But he does so with intelligence and daring, at personal cost, without ever blaming anyone else for his misfortune, and that makes up to a large degree for the cynicism and darkness of the setting. It's maybe a little worldweary to be fully noblebright, but it's tending strongly enough in that direction that I enjoyed it considerably.

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Review: The Thief Who Pulled on Trouble's Braids

The Thief Who Pulled on Trouble's Braids The Thief Who Pulled on Trouble's Braids by Michael McClung
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A classic sword-and-sorcery tale of thieves and wizards, but with a touch more idealism than the sometimes nihilist genre often displays. The titular thief, despite a disadvantaged background, a hard life, and a generally pragmatic outlook, manages to hold onto some principles; she doesn't kill unless she absolutely has to (and only those who really deserve it), she doesn't steal from anyone who has less than her, friendship means a lot to her, and she never gives up.

I have had this sitting on my Kindle for a long time, put off by the starting premise: the main character's friend is horribly murdered. When I got past that, though, the book presented me with a motivated character in a dynamic situation - a well-realised character who I could admire, despite her criminality - and that swept me all the way to the end.

I jounced over some typos on the way, but they weren't enough to dent my enjoyment much. I almost immediately picked up the sequel.

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Review: Legion: The Many Lives of Stephen Leeds

Legion: The Many Lives of Stephen Leeds Legion: The Many Lives of Stephen Leeds by Brandon Sanderson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A typically over-the-top Sanderson premise: a man hallucinates, and knows that he hallucinates, other people who possess knowledge and skills that he does not have conscious access to. He's perfectly sane; but his "aspects" have all kinds of psychological problems.

The author hints pretty clearly in his introduction that this is based on his own experience as an author - that his own characters help to keep him sane, by being safe carriers of his issues, as well as being able to do things that he can't. He takes the idea in some fun, interesting, and ultimately thought-provoking directions.

I've seen Sanderson dismissed as being merely the ultimate commercial writer, following the market's demands and expectations, but he's much more than that. Not only does he have wildly original ideas and develop them in ways that nobody else would think of, but there's a degree of emotional and psychological depth to his recent work in particular that isn't found in many authors. He hand-crafts his books, he doesn't stamp them out of a mould. While the first in these three connected novels shows the central character as a kind of superpowered detective, the following two increasingly follow his psychological struggles and internal, as well as external, challenges, and bring out philosophical questions while not neglecting action and conflict. The collection ends with a complex, but hopeful, conclusion.

I'd already read the original novella, I think in a collection, and eagerly requested this version via Netgalley when I saw it there. Thanks to the publisher for granting my request; it's one of the best books I've read this year.

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Friday, 7 September 2018

Review: Harley Merlin and the Secret Coven

Harley Merlin and the Secret Coven Harley Merlin and the Secret Coven by Bella Forrest
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Started out well, and I thought it was going to be both well-edited and fairly original. Sadly, in the end it was neither. Enjoyable enough, but barely a four-star.

Firstly, it's based much too closely on Harry Potter, up to and including points for an end-of-year prize and childish bickering (if anything, the HP kids are more mature than these characters).

Second, there are quite a few excess coordinate commas, and a good few vocabulary issues - homonym errors (like diffuse/defuse); wrong word choices for what the author means; and one of my pet hates, the jargon "going forward" repeatedly used to mean "in future" or "from now on".

Third, there are two - TWO - Convenient Eavesdrops, and even though neither one is completely essential to the plot, I still despise this plot device with a mighty hatred. It's weak writing, a convenient way to get around point-of-view limitations.

It's OK in a bubblegum sort of way, enjoyable for what it is, but it doesn't inspire me to look for more from this author.

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Review: Eye of Truth

Eye of Truth Eye of Truth by Lindsay Buroker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The classic Buroker elements are here: banter; steam conveyances; political intrigue which the characters are not so much engaging in as victims of; two people who appear confident but are privately full of doubts, and who look set to have a slow-burn romance; magic, here a bit more front-and-centre than usual. Another new element is the presence of elves and dwarves.

Somehow, though, the whole thing didn't quite come together for me. I enjoyed it well enough, but I wasn't so entertained or gripped that I am rushing out to buy the sequel. Perhaps the formula has become too formulaic.

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Sunday, 19 August 2018

Review: The Long List Anthology Volume 3: More Stories From the Hugo Award Nomination List

The Long List Anthology Volume 3: More Stories From the Hugo Award Nomination List The Long List Anthology Volume 3: More Stories From the Hugo Award Nomination List by David Steffen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've read the previous two volumes of this series, and there are always some excellent stories in them, as well as some that are not to my personal taste (but are still well done). The publication is done on a shoestring, and the copy editing reflects that, unfortunately. But there are some remarkable stories, and that's what keeps me coming back.

There was only one story in this volume that I didn't read it its entirety: Seanan McGuire's "Ye Highlands and Ye Lowlands," which vigorously signalled early on that it was going to be a gruelling, nasty postapocalyptic. I'm not up for that. She's an excellent writer, but far too dark most of the time for my personal taste.

Not that there weren't plenty of other dark stories. Joseph Allen Hill's "The Venus Effect" explores racist police brutality through multiple attempts to tell a spec-fic story. It's postmodern and meta, but well enough done that I forgave that. It's not the only story in which race plays a powerful role; Sam J. Miller's "Things with Beards," just before it in the volume, features a gay black man and what may be a metaphor for AIDS.

Jason Sanford's "Blood Grains Speak Through Memories" shows us a kind of postapocalyptic future in which nanotech created to preserve what's left of the environment has put humanity into a dystopian situation. Sarah Pinsker's "Sooner or Later Everything Falls Into the Sea" is also postapocalyptic.

Not everything is, though. "A Dead Djinn in Cairo" by P. Djeli Clark is an interesting take on mythos, with an Egyptian supernatural detective who dresses like an Englishman because she finds it "exotic". There's another mystery, of sorts, in Mary Robinette Kowal's "Forest of Memory". I very much enjoy MRK's contributions to the Writing Excuses podcast, but I have to confess I've never liked her actual writing much. I liked this more than the other things of hers I've read, though I did feel it was wordier than it needed to be.

There does seem to be a predominance of near-horror, dark fantasy, dark SF, dystopian and postapocalyptic in this volume, though; mood of the times, perhaps. It's a tribute to the skill of the authors that, although those subgenres are not usually what I like to read, I didn't hate the stories. Even Cassandra Khaw's "Hammers on Bone" - noir body-horror in a depressed England - didn't put me off. I've mentioned the theme of race; there are oppressed underclasses, lack of access to medical treatment ("Welcome to the Medical Clinic at the Interplanetary Relay Station | Hours Since the Last Patient Death: 0" by Caroline M. Yoachim), and other echoes of the contemporary US political situation. I know that stories will always reflect the zeitgeist, but it would have been good to have a few more that ran more counter to it.

Rebecca Ann Jordan's "We Have a Cultural Difference, Can I Taste You?" has a wonderfully alien alien, with a moving backstory; Lavie Tidhar's "Terminal" gives us the picture of terminally ill people piloting (for no readily apparent or explicable reason) a swarm of pods to Mars. These were among the strangest stories, but there was a powerful strangeness to most of them, usually in a good way.

Probably my favourite story was the last one, by S.B. Divya, "Runtime," a story of a determined member of an underclass working hard to better herself by means of a competition, in this case a an endurance race (in which personal modification and assistive equipment is permitted).

Overall, while the tone was not my favourite, the skill on display here is remarkable, and I will certainly look for the next volume when it comes out.

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Review: Hannah Green and Her Unfeasibly Mundane Existence

Hannah Green and Her Unfeasibly Mundane Existence Hannah Green and Her Unfeasibly Mundane Existence by Michael Marshall Smith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was out of my usual lane; darker than I generally like it, with the devil causing incidental mayhem in the lives of innocents wherever he went. However, because that wasn't the focus, but more or less character background; and because it was very well done, and (especially for a HarperCollins book) very well edited, with just a few missing words in sentences; and because it was original in its concept, I stuck with it.

Even though the title character is middle grade, the book isn't. It's definitely a book for adults, with musings (not too lengthy) on the human condition, and a sense of a dark world navigated fearfully but, on the whole, successfully. It resists a neat happy ending, but ends satisfactorily for all that. Along the way, multiple clearly distinguished characters with complicated relationships protagonize well and bravely in the cause of preventing a cosmic disaster.

I particularly enjoyed the accident imp, a comic-relief idiot character with a British dialect.

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Review: Lost Solace

Lost Solace Lost Solace by Karl Drinkwater
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I often say that if you give me a motivated protagonist in a dynamic situation, as long as you don't make any serious craft blunders you'll hook my attention for the duration. Extra points if the protagonist is a competent, capable woman.

Well, this book ticks all those boxes with a big thick pen.

It's a thrill ride of a space opera, with a mysterious lost ship full of alien danger, a giant gravity well around a neutron star, and well-equipped ships from a fascist-sounding military, all threatening Opal, the protagonist, and the AI-equipped ship she has stolen. I don't normally read military space opera, but the main reason I don't is that so much of it is the same, and this was a very different take on the possibilities of the genre.

I appreciated the fact that she tried repeatedly to convince the military that she wouldn't harm them if they let her go peacefully, even though that never worked and she always had to fight. The fights were suspenseful and varied, and, while the backstory became evident from clues long before it was explicitly revealed, it gave her a good reason to do what she was doing. The degree to which she, a former low-level grunt, was able to defeat better-equipped and more experienced military officers through cleverness and the assistance of her unparalleled AI did strain my disbelief a little, but I was willing to play along because it was so well done.

I do hope her refusal to follow the rules becomes a liability at some point, rather than just a motivation and a character trait, but I will certainly look out for more in this series.

I received a copy via Netgalley for purposes of review.

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Sunday, 29 July 2018

Review: Heroine Complex

Heroine Complex Heroine Complex by Sarah Kuhn
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've been waiting to read this for a while; I read the preview and decided that it was good enough that I wanted to read it, but not so amazingly good that I would pay the publisher's inflated price. I put it on my Await Ebook Price Drop wishlist, and eventually the price dropped into a more reasonable range and I picked it up.

I enjoy supers novels, when they're well done, and this is. It gets my "well-edited" tag; only a couple of minor typos that I noticed. It does get a content warning for lots and lots of swearing and quite a bit of (non-explicit) sex.

It's full of people with dysfunctional relationships. Normally, this would put me off, but when they're mostly self-aware about their dysfunction, and trying to deal with it, and at least partially succeeding, and quipping amusingly while doing so, it works. It helps, too, that the various dysfunctions are different from each other; though there are a lot of parent issues, they range from High Expectations Asian Parents Disapprove of My Career, through Self-Absorbed Dad Abandoned Us After Mom Died, to My Mother is Literally an Evil Psycho, to My Elder Sister is Raising Me Because of Aforementioned Self-Absorbed Dad/Dead Mom and I Have Teen Angst. There are also intimacy issues, and the kind of issues you get when your best friend is more popular than you are and you always feel like the sidekick, and the kind of issues you get when you take over from your more popular best friend and she resents it. And all of these are explored with multiple characters, which is clever.

The superhero action (against demons from another dimension) is fun, the banter witty, the plot and characters well handled.

The one weak spot for me was the interpolated blog posts from the Bitchy Mean Girl, which I felt were a bit clumsy in their snark. Everything else, though, worked, and I will look for the sequels.

Not at full price, though.

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Review: City of Broken Magic

City of Broken Magic City of Broken Magic by Mirah Bolender
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book features a determined young woman making her way in a dangerous profession - one of a bare few underresourced people fighting monsters, the existence of which the city is determined to officially deny.

That's an excellent start, and it progresses with plenty of excitement and action, and some degree of personal and interpersonal growth.

The setting was a bit lightly done; in particular, I always have a problem with an isolated island (especially one, as here, consisting of isolated cities which it's dangerous to travel between) developing high technology. That's something that arises more naturally in a continental setting where there's a lot of exchange of ideas and mobility among the population.

I read a pre-publication copy, and my enjoyment was markedly reduced by the author's lack of apparent acquaintance with the past perfect tense. A lot of authors today, when narrating in past tense, fail to go into past perfect to signal that they are talking about an event in the earlier past, which is disorienting and annoying. I hope, but don't necessarily expect, that this will be fixed by the time of publication; there are a lot of instances of it, which generally means that even a good copy editor will miss some.

Setting this aside, I found it good, though not great; a touch more depth to the characters and some more thought given to the setting would have helped.

I received a copy via Netgalley for purposes of review.

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Review: Foundryside

Foundryside Foundryside by Robert Jackson Bennett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I don't normally go for books which centre around characters in desperate, grinding poverty, oppressed by an uncaring and dystopian system. This is such a book, and yet, because it gave me a motivated character in a dynamic situation right out of the gate, it hooked me in and kept me reading.

It helped that the main character is a highly capable and determined young woman (my favourite type of character); she's a thief who can detect "scrived" (magical) devices and interact with them, because of a nasty experiment performed on her years before. When she gets hold of an ancient artefact that mysterious parties will do violence to obtain, she finds herself in the middle of conflicts that will leave everything changed, both around her and within her.

It's a strong concept, and it's well executed. The supporting characters are varied, with their hearts in the right place; the villains are suitably megalomaniacal and ruthless. There's amusing banter.

There's also a good deal of swearing, some, but by no means all, euphemistic, and some of it hinting at a religion that otherwise is conspicuous by its absence.

Overall, though, a fresh magical concept, complex and active characters, and a well-paced plot make this a compelling start to a series I will be watching closely.

I received a copy via Netgalley for purposes of review.

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Wednesday, 25 July 2018

Review: Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen

Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen by Lois McMaster Bujold
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A number of questions arose for me while I was reading this book.

Questions like: if the original author retcons her own characters, is it still fanfiction?

Was that retcon really necessary?

Where's the suspense?

It's a Lois McMaster Bujold book, so it contains wry wit, trenchant observations, and moments of poignancy.

But it's a recent Lois McMaster Bujold book, so it doesn't stand up well beside her best work. The stakes are personal, rather than being planetary or greater; the pace is sometimes slow, and the characters' actions are often mundane; it's not at all tightly plotted. One of the plot threads with the most sustained tension is the fate of some building materials, and the resolution for that is a deus ex machina that doesn't even fully resolve the issue.

There are sparkling moments, but on a spectrum of the author's books with Paladin of Souls and A Civil Campaign (two of my favourite books by anyone, let alone LMB) at one end, this is definitely at the other.

I also wasn't personally a fan of the bisexual, polyamorous retcon of Aral and Cordelia's relationship (that's not a spoiler, as it's revealed in the first chapter or two); it felt very fanfictiony. The love story that takes place in the book itself wasn't bad, though it wasn't amazing.

All in all, definitely one for completists only, particularly in view of the many callbacks to earlier (and, IMO, better) books in the series.

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Sunday, 1 July 2018

Review: Winterfair Gifts

Winterfair Gifts Winterfair Gifts by Lois McMaster Bujold
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I listened to the audio version of this novella, capably read by Grover Gardner, who also reads the Penric novellas by the same author.

It's an enjoyable side story in the Vorkosigan Saga, involving two minor characters from other books, Armsman Roic and Sergeant Taura. Roic, a provincial Barrayaran, has to overcome several of his prejudices when he meets the genetically modified super-soldier Taura. Together, they fight crime. (No, seriously, they do.)

While the short length doesn't allow for the complexity and depth of some of the novels in the series, it's witty, moving, and exciting, sometimes in the same scene. Its plot manages to combine both a mystery and a romance, two classic plot structures that Bujold makes work well together.

Worth picking up if you are a fan of the series; if you're not, a lot of the references will go over your head, and you're likely to enjoy it a lot less.

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Review: Glass and Gardens: Solarpunk Summers

Glass and Gardens: Solarpunk Summers Glass and Gardens: Solarpunk Summers by Sarena Ulibarri
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I picked this up primarily because of one of the authors, D.K. Mok, with whom I was in another anthology a couple of years back. I enjoyed her story in that collection, and also her novel, and expected that I'd enjoy this (which I did). Two of the other contributors are members of a writers' forum I participate in.

Like most anthologies, it turned out to be a mixed bag, though I liked most of the stories. The stories show a strong editorial hand in their selection, mostly being quite similar in tone and feel, though diverse in other respects.

I could wish that the copy editing had been as strong. Letters in the desert are referred to as "an acre tall'; an acre is a measure of area, not length. There are hyphens where they don't belong, and some missing where they do belong. There are common homonym errors (loathe/loath, horde/hoard, discrete/discreet) and a couple of less common ones (tulle for tuille, perspective for prospect). One author doesn't know how to use apostrophes with plural nouns (or, really, at all), and isn't corrected. And there are the usual common errors of unrequired coordinate commas, missing vocative commas, missing past perfect tense, and "may" instead of "might" in past tense narration scattered across various stories. Some are very good, others quite bad, depending on the skill of the author. (I should point out that I've seen the exact same issue in high-profile, professionally edited anthologies featuring award-winning authors.)

A character has "a plain face, but a handsome one"; which is it? Another character is given the wrong name. A band puts out a CD, many years in the future. There are several cases in which the amount of energy available from alternative sources, or storeable in a small space, is off by orders of magnitude, or gives the impression of being a perpetual motion machine.

So, plenty of issues with the editing, and some with the science. What about the stories?

On the whole, the stories don't have a lot of plot to them, in part because so much space is given to exposition. It's a difficult problem to avoid, given the premise; it plagued better-known writers than these in the anthology Hieroglyph, which also failed (as this one, mostly, does not) to be consistently upbeat in its vision of the future, despite stating that as a specific goal.

These are mostly what I think of as "worthy" stories, good-hearted attempts to envisage positive societies. This can mean that they're lacking in tension sometimes. One in particular, "Amber Waves," seems to set out to take away any tension inherent in the premise; every possible threat (and there are several significant ones) is quickly minimized, and the most disastrous of all turns out to be just what the characters needed. It was the least successful of the stories for me, as a result, lacking both tension and plot despite having the materials for both in ample supply.

Several of the pieces, being more explorations of ideas than plotted stories, use romance (or romantic elements) to provide some shape and a feeling of completion. This isn't a bad ploy; the romance plot is probably the best known plot in the world, so much so that, as with a familiar fairy story, you can reference a couple of elements of it and have the audience fill in the rest for themselves. Sometimes the romance is sweet and positive, as with "Under the Northern Lights"; sometimes, though, men are a problem, most notably in "Camping with City Boy".

The second-best-known plot is the mystery, and there's one of those, too: "Grover: Case #CO9 920, 'The Most Dangerous Blend'". As mysteries go, it's OK, neither not the most plausible nor, sadly, the least plausible I've read in terms of the killer's motivation.

There are a couple of heistish stories, as well, like "Riot of the Wind and Sun," in which a small desert town strives to attract enough attention to itself to gain much-needed resources, and (unsurprisingly) "Midsummer Night's Heist," about, and also by, an Italian subversive art collective which foils fascists.

A theme of many of the stories is a future with constrained resources, having to simplify lifestyles, do without, improvise, find ways around shortages and lacks. Often, this involves smaller, more loosely connected communities doing their best to get along. Several pieces deal with the kind of conflicts that small communities with constrained resources must face; "Watch Out, Red Crusher!" shows us a community that's ultimately unable to deal positively with deviance, which disappointed me, while both "Women of White Water" and "The Call of the Wold" show us older women offering their conflict-resolution and problem-solving skills to isolated groups of people. There's a nice phrase in the latter story: "The mantle of leadership was XXL and he was an extra-small".

Overall, though, this collection shows us a humanity that can step up to face its many problems, which I find commendable. While often short on plot, and needing better copy editing in places, the stories were mostly both enjoyable and thought-provoking for me.

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Wednesday, 27 June 2018

Review: The Moons of Barsk

The Moons of Barsk The Moons of Barsk by Lawrence M. Schoen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Disclaimers first: I know Lawrence M. Schoen slightly on social media (we have never met IRL), and he has hosted me on his Eating Authors blog series. I received an unedited copy via Netgalley for purposes of review; I won't comment specifically on the copy editing, on the assumption that it will get some more attention before publication.

I enjoyed the first of this series - despite what seemed to me considerable stretches, even holes, in the worldbuilding - because it had a lot of heart and I felt for the characters and their situation. The sequel is no different, although it held together better for me, and (unlike the first book) the ultimate resolution didn't seem excessively tidy, or depend on something that I saw as a plot hole or deus ex machina.

There's an interesting theme at the heart of this one, which was alluded to in the first book: that the future is fixed if people act in the ways that their culture has programmed them to, but if they rise above that and exercise free choice, they can change the world. One of the several viewpoint characters, Pizlo, carries most of this theme and expresses it most clearly, and he, as an outsider to his society and a precognitive, is in a position to know.

The other two viewpoint characters are set up as antagonists to one another, though they have more common cause than reason to fight one another (as one, but not the other, realizes). The tension between them was well sustained and well resolved, providing a strong emotional arc for all three viewpoint characters and for the book as a whole.

Though I could quibble with the worldbuilding and some of the sentence-level writing, the storytelling here is at an excellent level, and if that's what you mostly go to a book for, this might well be the book for you.

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Thursday, 21 June 2018

Review: Shift

Shift Shift by M.A. George
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An alternate-worlds novel, and a good one. Once I'd suspended my disbelief about identical people being born in extremely different worlds (there's a kind of gesture towards making this vaguely plausible, and you really have to accept it in order for the premise to work), I didn't find anything else that was hard to credit in a plot-hole sense.

The plot moved along nicely, in fact, driven by a quest that was fresh and original, with a cast of appealing-but-flawed characters led by the first-person viewpoint character, a determined, capable, snarky young woman.

Overall, highly enjoyable.

I received a copy from Netgalley for review.

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Review: The Book of Peril

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

I enjoyed the first book in the series, though I felt it could have had more of a sense of urgency. In this one, I didn't feel that lack; not that it was a sky-high-stakes, high-octane thrill ride, but it didn't seem excessively relaxed either.

The main character is a principled, courageous, determined, and competent young woman, which is my favourite kind of protagonist. There's a mystery and a potential romance, which means plenty of plot. All in all, a strong, enjoyable urban fantasy.

I had both books from Netgalley for review, which means I see them before they're published, and I always hesitate to mention editing in my reviews in those cases. I am going to mention a thing, though, which I passed on to the publisher directly about Book 1, but is still there in Book 2.

The bookstore that the main character works in is called Abernathy's. That means that when she refers to something that belongs to the bookstore - its door, for example, or its custodian, which is her - there's a problem. Since you can't very well say "Abernathy's' door," I personally would work around it by saying "the door of Abernathy's", but she doesn't, and every time I struck a phrase like "Abernathy's door" it brought me up short, because the door doesn't belong to Abernathy, but to Abernathy's. A minor annoyance, but one that could easily be removed with a bit of rephrasing, and I'm going to deny the book the "well-edited" tag solely because of it.

I have no complaints about any of the rest of the editing (apart from one vocabulary confusion which I will again pass on to the publisher privately); Melissa McShane has an excellent grasp of the mechanics, as well as the craft, of writing, and her prose is very clean. The story is involving, the characters are frequently admirable, and all in all it's a good time.

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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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