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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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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