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.

View all my reviews

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.

View all my reviews

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.

View all my reviews

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.

View all my reviews

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.

View all my reviews

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.

View all my reviews

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.

View all my reviews

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.

View all my reviews

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.

View all my reviews

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.

View all my reviews

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.

View all my reviews

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.

View all my reviews

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.

View all my reviews

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.

View all my reviews

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.

View all my reviews

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.

View all my reviews

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.

View all my reviews

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.

View all my reviews

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.

View all my reviews

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.

View all my reviews

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.

View all my reviews

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.

View all my reviews

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.

View all my reviews

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.

View all my reviews

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.

View all my reviews

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.

View all my reviews

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.

View all my reviews

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.

View all my reviews

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.

View all my reviews

Monday, 23 April 2018

Review: Sorcerer to the Crown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

View all my reviews

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