Tuesday, 17 April 2018

Review: Monkey: A Journey to the West

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

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

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

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

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

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

View all my reviews

Monday, 16 April 2018

Review: Footprints in the Future

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

Unfortunately, I found this book lacking two important features.

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

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

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

I received a copy via Netgalley for purposes of review.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, 10 April 2018

Review: Crosstalk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

View all my reviews

Tuesday, 3 April 2018

Review: Silence Fallen

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

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

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

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

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

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

View all my reviews

Saturday, 31 March 2018

Review: The Reign of the Departed

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

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

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

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

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

View all my reviews

Wednesday, 28 March 2018

Review: Hart & Boot & Other Stories

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

Tim Pratt is an author of two very different aspects.

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

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

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

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

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

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

View all my reviews

Review: The Fuller's Apprentice

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

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

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

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

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

View all my reviews

Wednesday, 21 March 2018

Review: The Prisoner of Limnos

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

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

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

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

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

View all my reviews

Thursday, 15 March 2018

Review: Witches Gone Wicked

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

View all my reviews

Friday, 9 March 2018

Review: Goldenhand

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

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

(view spoiler)

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

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

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

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

View all my reviews

Thursday, 8 March 2018

Review: The Curious Affair of the Witch at Wayside Cross

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

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

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

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

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

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

View all my reviews

Wednesday, 7 March 2018

Review: Overclocked: More Stories of the Future Present

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

View all my reviews

Review: Provenance

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

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

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

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

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

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

View all my reviews

Wednesday, 21 February 2018

Review: The Emperor's Mask

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

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

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

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

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

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

View all my reviews

Monday, 19 February 2018

Review: The Book of Secrets

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

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

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

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

It's by Melissa McShane? Sold!

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

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

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

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

I received a copy from Netgalley for review.

View all my reviews

Review: The Sisters Mederos

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

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

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

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

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

View all my reviews

Friday, 9 February 2018

Review: Into the Moonless Night

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

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

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

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

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

View all my reviews

Thursday, 8 February 2018

Review: The Meddlers of Moonshine

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

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

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

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

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

View all my reviews

Review: The Falling of the Moon

The Falling of the Moon The Falling of the Moon by A.E. Decker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I received a copy of this book, along with the two sequels, from Netgalley for purposes of review.

A fun story which both celebrates and undermines the fairy-tale genre, with a half-human, half-do-not-say-vampire-we-don't-use-the-V-word going out from Shadowvale, where her people live, into the wider world to live her own life. Equipped with a book of fairy tales, she finds that real life is a bit more complicated-and, indeed, the plot has an impressive number of twists. In all three books, I found myself unable to imagine how everything in the plot could possibly be tied up, almost up to the point when it was.

Ascot, the main character, possesses intelligence, determination, a good heart, and some unlikely but appealing allies, and manages to use them to the best advantage. Both she and the book combine brains and heart.

I was very happy to have the second book on hand so that I could carry on reading.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Review: Good Guys

Good Guys Good Guys by Steven Brust
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I've had people enthuse to me about Steven Brust more than once, but his main series is large and sprawling and not exactly my thing, and I've never found a point of entry to his work. When I saw this on Netgalley, a new series starter in a new genre for Brust, I thought I'd give it a try and see if he was actually as good as I'd heard.

He is. Not only is this written with assurance and strong craft, not only does it have highly entertaining banter among the diverse, distinct, and non-generic characters, but it also pulls off the difficult feat of having both moral complexity and a clear moral stance. The characters are imperfect and troubled, the reality they're dealing with is imperfect and complicated, and ultimately there isn't a "side" that is unambiguously and definitely the "good guys"; and yet most of the key characters, in their different ways, are striving to be "good guys" in their own terms, and some are even succeeding. It's noblebright, not grimdark, but it's noblebright with a lot of nuance and some extensive grey areas - yet ultimately hopeful.

I found the author's choice to write first-person sections from the perspective of the antagonist, and mix them with omniscient narration about the protagonists, an interesting one. I'm not sure exactly what it does; perhaps its function is to humanise the antagonist, so that we can see how he, too, in his distorted way, thinks he's a good guy, or at least a justified one.

The plot - agents of a secret cabal of sorcerers hunt down an assassin - is well paced, with good tension. Overall, excellent, and I would definitely read a sequel.

View all my reviews

Review: School for Psychics

School for Psychics School for Psychics by K.C. Archer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The main character here, Teddy, is trying hard to overcome her tendency to make poor life choices, but frankly, she sucks at it; she still does things like drinking heavily the night before a vital exam. That's a long way from being my favourite kind of character, which lost the book some points - not quite enough to take it down to three stars, though.

The premise of a school to train people with psychic powers to work with the military and law enforcement was an interesting one, and well handled. The Outcasts vs Alphas division of the students struck me as a bit YA, but it didn't descend into total cliche, and there was at least one alliance formed across those lines.

The plot was competently laid out, and the characters hit their marks in it and showed some progression beyond being stereotypes. Overall, a decent job, but not the kind of main character I want to follow into a sequel.

I received a copy from Netgalley for review.

View all my reviews

Review: The Empyrean Gate

The Empyrean Gate The Empyrean Gate by Z. Rockward
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Well, opening with an explicit masturbation scene: I did not expect that from anything in the blurb.

I also didn't pick up from "Part I" in the title that this is a serial, and this part is not anything like being a complete story. Nothing is resolved at the end.

Also: a polluted Earth has taken to launching junk into space first (headed for the sun), and sorting through it for valuables afterwards (rather than recycling it on Earth)? And those valuables include manuscripts and artworks? I roll to disbelieve, and score a natural 20. No; the junk satellite makes absolutely no sense whatsoever, and is simply a thin excuse to get the main character involved in the wider story.

The main character herself is what I call a "spoiled protagonist," who's treated as if she has standing and should be allowed to be involved in everything, including top-secret stuff, even though this also makes absolutely no sense. The love interest even says that it doesn't make sense, repeatedly and at length, and he's right.

There may be some startling future revelation of why this character is so special, but I won't be reading any further. I nearly gave up partway through as it was, and had it not been so short that I was already more than 80% of the way through, I probably would just have stopped.

Not helped by the fact that my least favorite piece of corporate jargon, "moving forward," is used four or five times, meaning "in future" or "from now on" (or occasionally not meaning very much at all).

View all my reviews

Thursday, 25 January 2018

Review: No Time to Spare: Thinking about What Matters

No Time to Spare: Thinking about What Matters No Time to Spare: Thinking about What Matters by Ursula K. Le Guin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

While I still had 10% of this book left to read, I heard that Ursula Le Guin had died, which made the rest of my read an opportunity to mourn our loss of a wise, deep thinker and excellent writer. Though she had little patience for literary vs genre divisions, she was often counted among "literary" writers, and the primary reason is, I think, that her work combines close observation of the ordinary with a deep interiority. Her work would be hard to film, just because most of the interesting stuff is happening slowly, and inside the characters.

It's not, I'll be honest, a style that I'm always in the mood for, and it took me a while to finish reading this book, too, for the same reason. It's made up of blog posts, but because this is Le Guin, they're blog posts that rise to the level of essays. And, also because this is Le Guin, a lot of them are more observation or memoir than argument, though there are certainly some that take a point of view and argue it.

As Karen Joy Fowler's introduction says, "Le Guin is not the kind of sage who demands agreement and obeisance", so I will include here a minor criticism.

Nobody is wise all the time, as Le Guin demonstrated over the Amazon/Hachette kerfuffle. At the time, I felt that she had committed the inverse error of libertarianism: some libertarians assume that all corporations are good, while she seemed to assume, just as blindly, that all corporations, and all their works, are always and inevitably evil. In one of the pieces here, she claims that Hugh Howey called her a liar in the context of that controversy.

Now, Hugh isn't always wise either, by any means, but that didn't sound like him; I spent a few minutes on Google and concluded that this was almost certainly based on a misattribution of another person's words to him in a poorly-written Salon article, which conflates two quotes from a piece in the New York Times. Le Guin, understandably though erroneously nettled, goes on to sarcastically misrepresent Howey's position. (What he'd actually said was that trad-pub authors who were defending Hachette had been lied to, a situation that the Salon article perpetuated.) In another chapter - speaking, no doubt, from personal experience - she wisely remarks that "Anger continued on past its usefulness becomes unjust, then dangerous," a lesson that may be applicable here.

For me, she's at her best when observing phenomena, and at her - not worst, perhaps, but certainly least good - when evaluating them, though with her trenchant observations, it's often a fine line between the two. She has a wonderful turn of phrase: speaking of feminism in the 70s, she remarks that "Terrified misogynists of both sexes were howling that the house was burning down before most feminists found out where the matches were," and on literary receptions: "If piano is the opposite of forte, graceful chitchat with strangers is definitely my piano."

She concludes the book, suddenly and unexpectedly, with a question that no doubt arises from her long study of Taoism: What is entity? It seems her life and work were, in part, an attempt to answer that question - an attempt that can inspire the rest of us to continue to pursue a deeper understanding and a greater connection with the world. Certainly, she's inspired me to imagine other worlds than these where the differences are not, or not only, technological or magical, but sociological and anthropological as well, and to really sink in to what such worlds might be like, in a way that perhaps can bring back insights for real, contemporary life.

View all my reviews

Thursday, 18 January 2018

Review: Goldmayne: A Fairy Tale

Goldmayne: A Fairy Tale Goldmayne: A Fairy Tale by Kate Stradling
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the third book I've read by this author, and, unusually, I read them one after another. (The two Ruses books were the first two.) That argues that I enjoy her writing, and indeed I do.

It also makes me aware of patterns, though. The fact that all the characters hum when they're ambivalent about something. The habit of putting in an unnecessary comma after "Then" when it's the first word in a sentence. The occasional incorrect choice of vocabulary words. And two much larger flaws: passive main characters, and arrogant, annoying love interests.

It's a sound rule of thumb in writing that the viewpoint character should be the one who has the most at stake, the one who's most motivated and driven to solve the story problem, the one who's working hardest and sacrificing most, and often the one who's most competent to bring about a resolution. In all three of these books, though, the viewpoint character is not these things. They're resistant to taking action, not just at first, but almost throughout; they often have to be bullied into action by the arrogant, annoying love interest - and also, in the case of this book, by the talking animal sidekick, who is smarter and more capable than the theoretical hero, and for most of the book has more at stake.

The arrogant, annoying love interest is a trope of the romance genre, and one I've never liked. It's hard to identify with a character who's attracted to someone who I, in real life, would find extremely irritating and not especially attractive. It's also harder to identify with a character who's passive and not the one who takes decisive, effective action at key moments in the story.

I don't mind books that are written to a formula if it's a formula I like. If the formula has elements I don't like, it's usually a problem.

And yet I do enjoy these books. What would usually be fatal flaws are still drawbacks, to be sure, but not dealbreakers. I think this is because the books mostly read smoothly; the main characters, while often passive, are genuinely good-hearted; and there's a good amount of tension that ebbs and flows as it should.

I don't know that I'll read any more of these for a while. But this is an author I probably will come back to when I'm in the right mood.

View all my reviews

Monday, 15 January 2018

Review: Tournament of Ruses

Tournament of Ruses Tournament of Ruses by Kate Stradling
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

While this still makes it to four stars for being entertaining and enjoyable, it didn't impress me as much as the first in the series. (I bought the second as soon as I finished the first, which is not something I do all the time.)

First, the stakes in this book didn't seem nearly as high. In the first book, the kingdom's fate hung in the balance, but here it's mostly social stakes and some dangerous, but fairly easily defeated, attackers. Now, social stakes can feel just as urgent, in the right hands, but here I found myself thinking about the peasants who were being taxed so that all these flighty aristocrats could have extravagant parties, and thinking they were being ripped off.

Secondly, the main character wasn't nearly as strong. Viola, in the first book, is competent, sensible, determined, independent-minded, and willing to sacrifice herself in the right cause. Flora, in this book, while intelligent and sensible, is several times accused (with some justification) of being a bit spineless and just going along with things, and never actually commits that strongly to her duties; she always wants to give up and go back to her quiet country existence, even right near the end.

And third, the copy editing, which was decent with a few issues in the first book, is much shakier in this one. Lots of homonym errors and other vocabulary problems, plus a good many typos. The author can't make up her mind whether the street where the lords live is "Lords' Row" (which it should be) or "Lord's Row," and at one point has both on the same page. I've reported these to Amazon, and hopefully they'll be fixed soon.

All in all, though, enjoyable, and I've bought a third book by the same author, which is an important measure, for me, of how well a book has worked for me.

View all my reviews

Review: Kingdom of Ruses

Kingdom of Ruses Kingdom of Ruses by Kate Stradling
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An entertaining, light fantasy romance, with the romance as a strong B plot rather than the main event.

Suffers a little from a common drawback of romance (the male lead is actually arrogant and annoying, which makes it harder to believe that the pragmatic, capable heroine falls for him), and the heroine has to be rescued, but apart from that it holds together well. The fate of the kingdom is at stake, an extraordinarily long con is potentially about to be exposed, and in general a challenging time is had by all. I liked and admired most of the characters (apart from the villains, of course), and the central characters, in particular, ended up having some depth to them.

View all my reviews