Saturday, 31 March 2018

Review: The Reign of the Departed

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

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

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

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

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

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Wednesday, 28 March 2018

Review: Hart & Boot & Other Stories

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

Tim Pratt is an author of two very different aspects.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: The Fuller's Apprentice

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

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

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

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

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

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Wednesday, 21 March 2018

Review: The Prisoner of Limnos

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

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

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

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

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

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Thursday, 15 March 2018

Review: Witches Gone Wicked

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Friday, 9 March 2018

Review: Goldenhand

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

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

(view spoiler)

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

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

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

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

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Thursday, 8 March 2018

Review: The Curious Affair of the Witch at Wayside Cross

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Wednesday, 7 March 2018

Review: Overclocked: More Stories of the Future Present

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: Provenance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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