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.

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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.

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