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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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