Wednesday, 27 June 2018

Review: The Moons of Barsk

The Moons of Barsk The Moons of Barsk by Lawrence M. Schoen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Disclaimers first: I know Lawrence M. Schoen slightly on social media (we have never met IRL), and he has hosted me on his Eating Authors blog series. I received an unedited copy via Netgalley for purposes of review; I won't comment specifically on the copy editing, on the assumption that it will get some more attention before publication.

I enjoyed the first of this series - despite what seemed to me considerable stretches, even holes, in the worldbuilding - because it had a lot of heart and I felt for the characters and their situation. The sequel is no different, although it held together better for me, and (unlike the first book) the ultimate resolution didn't seem excessively tidy, or depend on something that I saw as a plot hole or deus ex machina.

There's an interesting theme at the heart of this one, which was alluded to in the first book: that the future is fixed if people act in the ways that their culture has programmed them to, but if they rise above that and exercise free choice, they can change the world. One of the several viewpoint characters, Pizlo, carries most of this theme and expresses it most clearly, and he, as an outsider to his society and a precognitive, is in a position to know.

The other two viewpoint characters are set up as antagonists to one another, though they have more common cause than reason to fight one another (as one, but not the other, realizes). The tension between them was well sustained and well resolved, providing a strong emotional arc for all three viewpoint characters and for the book as a whole.

Though I could quibble with the worldbuilding and some of the sentence-level writing, the storytelling here is at an excellent level, and if that's what you mostly go to a book for, this might well be the book for you.

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Thursday, 21 June 2018

Review: Shift

Shift Shift by M.A. George
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An alternate-worlds novel, and a good one. Once I'd suspended my disbelief about identical people being born in extremely different worlds (there's a kind of gesture towards making this vaguely plausible, and you really have to accept it in order for the premise to work), I didn't find anything else that was hard to credit in a plot-hole sense.

The plot moved along nicely, in fact, driven by a quest that was fresh and original, with a cast of appealing-but-flawed characters led by the first-person viewpoint character, a determined, capable, snarky young woman.

Overall, highly enjoyable.

I received a copy from Netgalley for review.

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Review: The Book of Peril

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

I enjoyed the first book in the series, though I felt it could have had more of a sense of urgency. In this one, I didn't feel that lack; not that it was a sky-high-stakes, high-octane thrill ride, but it didn't seem excessively relaxed either.

The main character is a principled, courageous, determined, and competent young woman, which is my favourite kind of protagonist. There's a mystery and a potential romance, which means plenty of plot. All in all, a strong, enjoyable urban fantasy.

I had both books from Netgalley for review, which means I see them before they're published, and I always hesitate to mention editing in my reviews in those cases. I am going to mention a thing, though, which I passed on to the publisher directly about Book 1, but is still there in Book 2.

The bookstore that the main character works in is called Abernathy's. That means that when she refers to something that belongs to the bookstore - its door, for example, or its custodian, which is her - there's a problem. Since you can't very well say "Abernathy's' door," I personally would work around it by saying "the door of Abernathy's", but she doesn't, and every time I struck a phrase like "Abernathy's door" it brought me up short, because the door doesn't belong to Abernathy, but to Abernathy's. A minor annoyance, but one that could easily be removed with a bit of rephrasing, and I'm going to deny the book the "well-edited" tag solely because of it.

I have no complaints about any of the rest of the editing (apart from one vocabulary confusion which I will again pass on to the publisher privately); Melissa McShane has an excellent grasp of the mechanics, as well as the craft, of writing, and her prose is very clean. The story is involving, the characters are frequently admirable, and all in all it's a good time.

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Friday, 15 June 2018

Review: Penric's Fox

Penric's Fox Penric's Fox by Lois McMaster Bujold
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Another installment in the novella series, jumping back in time to between Penric and the Shaman and Penric's Mission. This time it's a mystery, and a decently handled one; Bujold can write a good mystery, as we've seen in some of her Vorkosigan books. It's a kind of fantasy police procedural, in which the fantasy elements are essential to the plot; both the motive for the murder and the approach to solving it rely on them.

Like the other Penric books, I enjoyed it without feeling that it ever approached the heights of Bujold's best works. The emotional stakes are lower, somehow, the emotional depths shallower, the insights less remarkable. It was good, but never threatened to become great.

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Review: The Story Peddler

The Story Peddler The Story Peddler by Lindsay A. Franklin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book managed to sneak a dystopia onto my reading list, which is quite a feat; and, even more impressively, it also managed to make me enjoy it.

The trope of forbidden magic is overplayed, but this was a good variation on it: magic users/artists who are given the choice by an oppressive regime of being either co-opted or suppressed. The protagonist, a determined and capable young woman (my favourite kind of protagonist), takes the option "neither of the above" and connects up with other dissidents, while the despot's daughter struggles to temper his tyranny. Eventually, the two story threads connect, leading to a climax which took me by surprise with its suddenness.

Well crafted, with characters that deepen beyond their stereotypes because they all have a backstory and all want something, which they're prepared to pursue at personal cost. There's no softpedaling in terms of the outcomes for the characters - several of them come to tragic ends - but it skillfully avoids becoming dark, hopeless, or cynical.

Not quite amazing enough to make it to five stars, but certainly very good, and I expect to include it in my Year's Best list this year.

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Review: Burn

Burn Burn by James Patrick Kelly
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

James Patrick Kelly is an excellent craftsman of the short story, but this novella introduced too much while resolving too little. I found the behaviour of the protagonist's wife inexplicable, and it was unclear what anyone wanted or was trying to achieve - nor did anyone seem to achieve much.

It seems to have been primarily intended as a (excuse the pun) burn on Thoreau, but there was no real substantive critique of the utopia built on Thoreau's ideas, and not much exploration of its ideology, despite plenty of opportunity. Missing the chance to be a novel of ideas, it also failed to have much of a plot or explore character in any depth, and I was left wondering what the point of it was.

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Wednesday, 6 June 2018

Review: Zero Sum Game

Zero Sum Game Zero Sum Game by S.L. Huang
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Extremely well done, but too murdery for my taste.

Often, when I get ARCs from Netgalley, I have to make a concerted effort to ignore the copy editing issues (in the hope that they'll be fixed by publication time) and focus on the actual story. Not in this case. The ARC is practically spotless. Not only that, but it displays excellent writing craft; it's polished, professional, slick.

It's difficult to say precisely what the genre is here. Is the protagonist technically a superhero, given her incredible real-time mathematical ability which enables her to perform staggering physical feats and makes her a crack shot (and given the villain's powers as well)? Is it a contemporary SF thriller? An urban fantasy with mental powers instead of magic? It could be any of the three.

It has the feel of a blockbuster movie, with lots of chases, guns, and explosions... and a high body count - which, for me, was a problem. One of the characters hangs a lampshade on the fact that the protagonist's first cut at a solution to a problem is generally to shoot someone, but even after she starts trying not to do that so much, she still does it. Of the 29 people killed in a citywide disaster at one point, she killed at least four of them.

Another character, the only one she trusts, is a psychopath with no human emotion who kills even more people, but he at least has a moral structure, albeit a rather odd one, to guide him in who he does and doesn't hurt. The main character vaguely feels that maybe not murdering so many people would be preferable, but doesn't act on that feeling too much. She also never even comes close to being arrested for any of her many murders.

In the end, even though the writing itself is close to flawless, this deep flaw in the main character was too much for me, and I dinged the book a star based on my personal preference against antiheroes.

Disclaimers: I am on a writers' forum with S.L. Huang. I received a copy via Netgalley for review.

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