Friday, 16 August 2019

Review: The Quantum Garden

The Quantum Garden The Quantum Garden by Derek K√ľnsken
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read the first in this series and enjoyed it, despite its frequent tragedies and challenging setting, so I requested this one from Netgalley. Thanks to the publisher for granting the request.

I found it easier to follow than the first, though like the first one, it does have a long series of events in which things get worse for the characters and they have to make terrible choices. Like the first, it ends with at least a hint of hope. Unlike the first, it doesn't really incorporate a heist.

It's a complex setting, with several kinds of genetically engineered posthuman, AIs, time travel, quantum effects and aliens. It's not just your generic paint-by-numbers space opera, for sure. As well, it's a powerful emotional story about people having their deepest beliefs about themselves and their lives challenged and having to come to terms with their responsibility for terrible consequences of their actions.

If that's something you're looking for, I recommend it highly; it's done with a good deal of skill.

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Sunday, 11 August 2019

Review: Chasing the Shadows

Chasing the Shadows Chasing the Shadows by Maria V. Snyder
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've come to the conclusion that these books aren't so much science fiction as fantasy with some SF trappings (aliens, spaceships, planets). It's lampshaded that the laws of physics are not being well observed here, plus the main character is developing what I can only call a psychic connection to the self-aware cyberspace known as the Q-Net. It very nearly got onto my "SF-with-bad-science" shelf, but I don't think the unscientific bits are a result of ignorance (as in the other books on that shelf); they're deliberate.

Somehow, I liked the main character, despite the fact that she's a bit of a perfect Chosen One. I can see why everyone else finds her irritating, since she keeps being right about things and has basically superpowers. She gets away with this for me because of her self-deprecation, even if she claims not to be sensible and is, in fact, extremely sensible, accepting necessary limitations without irrational teenage rebellion, and taking all of her risks for good reasons.

Despite the flawed science and flawless heroine, I did enjoy this, and intend to keep reading the series. I like the voice, I like the mystery, I like the fact that it isn't just the same old thing reheated once again, and I want to see where it goes from here.

I received a review copy via Netgalley.

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Tuesday, 6 August 2019

Review: Stone Unturned: A Legend of Ethshar

Stone Unturned: A Legend of Ethshar Stone Unturned: A Legend of Ethshar by Lawrence Watt-Evans
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Right up my alley: a book full of magic-users, with a (main) protagonist who's simply motivated by doing the right thing, because he's a good person.

The author describes this series as "light-hearted," and if by that he means "not dark and tragic and full of angst" then I endorse that description. It's refreshing to have sword-and-sorcery tales that aren't packed with antiheroes, and I will be checking out the rest of this series (which consists mostly of standalones that can be read out of order).

The setting was originally developed for a game, and the magic-users show their D&D roots, though not to excess. (Mainly it's the names of the spells.)

There are three storylines, with different viewpoint characters, starting in different times, and they eventually merge in pretty much the ways I'd expected. The main plot ends up escalating to stopping a villain, and the solution they come up with for both the villain's scheme and one of the other main story problems is, again, something I saw coming. But the predictability didn't dent my enjoyment much.

Slightly scruffy in the copy editing, with a few missing words and misplaced quotation marks, a continuity error and a homonym slip, but the issues are not constant, and most of them are not too egregious.

On the whole, an enjoyable palate cleanser for more serious books, fun and full of action but not lacking a brain.

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Review: Chasing Solace

Chasing Solace Chasing Solace by Karl Drinkwater
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A compelling, suspenseful story of survival and quest.

The author writes horror, and this does have some horror aspects - most of the book is the protagonist making her way through a deserted spaceship that's an abbatoir, with all of the disgusting fluids, sinister tools, and reminders of industrial-scale suffering that implies. Plus monsters trying to eat her face.

I'm not a horror reader at all, but to me, this didn't end up being offputting. It was mitigated by the fact that the protagonist was sealed away from all the gunk in an environment suit, and that she'd survived a similar trip in the previous book and looked certain to survive this one. There was still plenty of suspense and action, well paced.

The character had a clear goal (find her way to her missing sister), and worked steadily and bravely towards it, while her resources, weapons, and tools were gradually used up or lost. The chapter numbering is in reverse order, which provided a kind of countdown that, for me, helped to give a sense of momentum and urgency.

Importantly, the protagonist isn't without someone to talk to: the AI from her ship. This gives another layer of relationship to the story, and helps us come to know the protagonist better, while still leaving her battling physically alone.

There are, near the end, some genuinely alien-seeming aliens in a genuinely alien-feeling setting, which is hard to do and, here, is well done.

I wouldn't recommend reading this one without having read the first in the series; there's no real recap or backstory feed, and a lot of it will make no sense if you start here. But if you enjoyed the first book, for my money this is even better, and the first one was already good.

Disclaimer: The author gave me a review copy (and no other inducement) because I'd reviewed the first book. I don't normally do reviews by author request, but in this case I'd enjoyed Book 1, so I made an exception - and I didn't regret it.

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Review: Turning Darkness Into Light

Turning Darkness Into Light Turning Darkness Into Light by Marie Brennan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've only read one and a bit of the Lady Trent series, having bounced off the uneven pacing of the second book. But I knew the author to be very skilled, not only from reading some of her work but from interacting with her on a writers' forum we both belong to, so when I saw that this one had a new character in the same setting (a couple of generations later), and a premise that sounded promising in terms of a compelling story with strong stakes and sustained tension, I requested it from Netgalley. Thanks to the publisher for granting the request.

I wasn't disappointed, either. It starts out, like the Lady Trent stories, focused on the scholarship, but even at the beginning there are strong hints of why the outcome of the protagonist's efforts to translate an ancient text are going to be politically important. As the story goes on, it becomes more and more clear that there's something dodgy going on, and the action ramps up rapidly. Throughout, there are a series of interactions between the protagonist and her former love interest that develop the complexities of that relationship in a way I've seldom seen achieved.

It's presented through a series of documents - journals, letters, police reports, the translation that lies at the heart of the story - and that's well done, though I did stumble a little when I realized that the very confessional, diary-like tone of one piece was actually still part of a witness statement made to the police. It was the sole misstep I noticed in the epistolary part of the book, and since it's lampshaded, was probably intentional.

The other thing I stumbled over a little was the worldbuilding. My personal philosophy is that if you choose to create a world that's not our world, rather than just have a version of our world with (say) dragons in it, it shouldn't resemble our world too closely (or what's the point of the difference)? This world sometimes resembles ours too closely, with countries that I mentally dubbed MightAsWellBeEngland, MightAsWellBeChina and MightAsWellBeIndia.

Apart from that, which is really just a philosophical difference, I enjoyed this very much. The sentence-level writing is excellent, the pacing good, the plot compelling, the characters and their relationships more complex and messy and (hence) realistic than I usually see. It easily makes my Best of 2019 list.

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Tuesday, 23 July 2019

Review: The Forbidden Stars

The Forbidden Stars The Forbidden Stars by Tim Pratt
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A space opera heist caper, where the target is an entire solar system, and the mark is a group of fascist aliens (servants of Mythos-esque, godlike, ancient malevolent aliens, who are sleeping but not dead).

Because it was structured as a heist, and because it was so enjoyable, I forgave the ease with which the tiny crew achieved everything they set out to do. The third time the main progagonist went in alone into a facility full of enemies, this time almost literally with her hands tied behind her back, rather than being put off by the over-the-top unlikeliness I just thought, "Oh, it's like when Miles Vorkosigan goes into the prison camp, naked and alone, and you know that it's everyone else that's in trouble. This will be cool to watch play out."

The banter and snark are fun, the stakes are high enough to keep up some tension without ever dragging the story into the dark, and overall it's a good ride.

I've read the first of the trilogy, but not the second; I didn't find that caused me any confusion, but I will go back and read the second one, because I enjoy these books so much.

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Wednesday, 17 July 2019

Review: Ivory Apples

Ivory Apples Ivory Apples by Lisa Goldstein
My rating: 0 of 5 stars

Jo Walton says of this book, "I loved it. You'll love it too."

She really should know better than to say things like that.

I tried hard. I came back to it twice after going off and reading other things that appealed to me more. But in the end I DNFed at 47%.

Why? Not because it isn't well-written; it is. But because, despite a fantasy premise that (as far as I read) was more background than foreground, what this mainly reminded me of was those grim-and-gritty, real-life-sucks YA novels that I avoided as a teenager, because frankly I'd rather read something escapist.

It's very good - for me, too good - at portraying an abusive adult in charge of children, and the desperate lengths one of the children goes to in response. But that isn't what I want to read.

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Saturday, 13 July 2019

Review: The Return of the Incredible Exploding Man

The Return of the Incredible Exploding Man The Return of the Incredible Exploding Man by Dave Hutchinson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Here's what I'd tell this author if I was his editor. Obviously, I'm not.

Your prose is well above average. That's what kept me reading through the very slow first quarter; I don't know that it would do as much for most readers. Your structure, on the other hand, needs a lot of work.

The first quarter consists entirely of a sad loser (one of my least favourite kinds of character, speaking for myself) resisting a decision that it's clear he will end up making. What's not clear is why he's resisting it. Is he fiercely independent and doesn't like being railroaded? If so, you need to show that more obviously, and also make it a trait that carries through into the rest of the book. Likewise if he's just self-sabotaging. I couldn't figure out which one it was, or if it was something else, and it never ended up mattering anyway.

The middle half is stronger, but at the three-quarter mark it takes a sharp left turn, and practically all the plot lines and characters that have been gradually developing through the middle are thrown away, never to be resolved. Your title promises, and the blurb hints, that this is a supers book. It isn't for the first three-quarters, and the last quarter is only a supers book if you're extremely generous with the definition. Then the ending is a complete damp fizzle.

Here's what I suggest you do. Cut two-thirds of the first 75%, including most of the first 25%. Get rid of all the plotlines that go nowhere and the characters that disappear at the three-quarter mark for no particular reason except that the book has suddenly changed what it's about. If possible, bring in at least two of the three new characters you introduce in the last quarter (the Polish scientist and the two government agents); don't introduce significant new characters after the first act if you can help it.

Develop the relationships with Wendy, the scientist from the early part, and if possible Rob Chen. They're underutilised. The relationship with Wendy doesn't have to be a romance (you briefly hint at the possibility, but never follow through), but it should be more than it is. Chen is a throwaway at the moment. You developed the relationship with Ralph, the old man next door, well; I want to see you do the same with other characters that last until the end of the book.

And definitely develop the relationship with the villain. Perhaps you could toss in the theory that the reason Alex and he were the only ones who were able to leave after the accident was that they were having a confrontation at the time; either the emotional heightening or the physical proximity could provide an explanation for what is, at the moment, unexplained. It's fine if that's just a theory that never gets confirmed, but humans come up with theories to explain things. At the moment, no explanation is even attempted. Have the scientists at least figure something out, and show us a bit of their process, and their personal process around the scientific process. That's your chance to give the female characters, particularly Wendy, more to do; at the moment, they're tokens. "Look, my book has women scientists! Two of them!" Yes, well, good for you, but they don't play that much role in the plot, especially not as scientists, and not as fully realised people either.

Instead of just having the agents tell Alex about the damage the villain's doing, have him go and see and feel the devastation it's causing for himself. Have him try to help the victims with his new powers, which are seriously underutilized; there's not even a suggestion that he should be considering the good he can do on a large scale. He barely does much on a small scale.

The whole new middle should be about him trying to come to terms with his new powers, trying to use them in a way that matters, hitting limitations, discovering that helping people isn't simple, opening out beyond his self-absorption, differentiating himself from the villain, and becoming more determined to stop the villain. Give me a reason to be emotionally invested. Lead up to the second confrontation with the villain, and make it the turning point of Act 3, not just an inconclusive thing that happened without much foreshadowing or emotional weight. Then show us how things resolve for the characters we've now come to care about. Not everything needs to wrap up in a neat bow, but something needs to resolve. At the moment, the ending is nothing. It has no thematic resonance (in part because the book is so disjointed), it has no sense of a plot coming to a conclusion, it's just a place where you stop writing. Everything has changed for Alex, but nothing has changed for him. Give him an internal journey to match his external one.

In the current version, the book Alex is writing never comes together and ends up just being lost, uncompleted. I assume that's not intended as a metaphor for this book, but it certainly could be.

If you wrote the book I describe above, or anything close to it, it could be a five-star book for me. You're a clever writer. You could make it not cliched, you could have things that are left unsettled, you could avoid turning it into a Hollywood cookie-cutter plot. Yes, it's more conventional than what you've done, but classics are classics because they work. As it stands, your version only makes it to three stars because of the quality of the prose; structurally and in terms of pacing, it doesn't work for me at all, and I think there are serious missteps. It's certainly not the "thrilling science fiction masterwork" that the blurb promises.

(I received a review copy via Netgalley.)

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Review: This Is How You Lose the Time War

This Is How You Lose the Time War This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I don't know about the time war, but this is how you win a bunch of awards, or it ought to be.

Red and Blue are time agents, on opposite sides of a war to manipulate events towards their respective futures. That's not an original premise, but what these two authors do with it is.

I'm not familiar with much of Amar El-Mohtar's work, but I've read enough Max Gladstone to know that for me, he can be hit and miss. "A Kiss, With Teeth" is one of the best stories I've ever read; parts of his Craft Sequence, the series with the lawyer/sorcerers, are excellent, but parts, for me, were deeply disappointing (not least because the other parts were so good). I also knew he didn't shy away from the dark and gruesome, so I went into this book with trepidation.

There is dark, and there is gruesome; there is a lot of death, and the cotagonists are usually its instigators, which doesn't help me to identify with them. But the only slight disappointment in terms of writing craft, for me, was perhaps an inevitable one: even though these agents range across multiple timelines and planets in the course of the book, all of the references they use are to our particular timeline (just as, in Gladstone's Craft Sequence, he occasionally drops an undigested piece of this world into his very different setting, and it jars me).

Apart from that, it's frankly amazing. I stopped about halfway through and went and read some other things, mainly because I was afraid it had got as good as it was going to, and the last half was going to just fall apart. But no. It got better.

Red and Blue begin as enemies, but they become first rivals, then friends, of a sort, and then.... it just keeps getting more intense. They write to each other secretly, using their considerable powers and ingenuity to encode messages in everyday objects that fall into the other's hands. If either of their factions finds out, they're both dead. But their lives are inextricably entangled, and perhaps nobody else in all of time and space can understand them except each other.

The prose is beautiful, and well edited; it's powerfully poetic, full of heavily weighted imagery. The plot is complex (as time travel plots tend to be) and compelling. The characters themselves - I wouldn't want to meet them; I wouldn't want to be them; but their intensity and passion drew me in regardless.

This is, in short, a very fine book that richly deserves the many accolades that will be heaped upon it. It's something quite unusual in the realm of speculative fiction, something that very few authors could pull off anything like this well. As a reviewer, I read a lot of mediocre or by-the-numbers books; this is not, by any stretch, one of them. It's excellent.

I received a review copy via Netgalley.

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Sunday, 30 June 2019

Review: Gods of Jade and Shadow

Gods of Jade and Shadow Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I don't usually pick up books with "dark" in the blurb, but for this one I made an exception, because of the author. I'm glad I did.

I recently read a set of guidelines for a short story market that said "Don't send me X unless you're Silvia Moreno-Garcia," so I'm not the only one who thinks about her this way. I'd previously read her novel The Beautiful Ones, which is so full of potential to be a horrible tragedy, but instead pulls off what I've come to call the Glorious Ending: a character rises above themselves, above what any ordinary person would do, and does something that is so much the right thing, so much an act of love in the face of a dark world, that everything is changed.

Well, at the risk of a vague spoiler (because I don't think you'll guess exactly how it comes off), she's done it again.

The protagonist, Casiopea, a young Mexican woman whose native (late) father is used by her family as an excuse to make her their domestic servant, is fully believable as a naive young woman who hasn't ever left her small town, but has read widely and has big dreams. Or, actually, relatively small and conventional dreams, which end up being rendered irrelevant by the actual adventure that finds her: the lord of the (Mayan) underworld needs her help to regain his throne from his usurping brother. She continues to be believable, and becomes increasingly rounded as a character, as she copes with this bizarre and unwanted situation, confronting sorcerers and gods and other supernatural beings, plus her spoiled and hapless cousin (who also gets a bit of a growth arc).

Early on, the story starts looking like Cinderella, and the narration specifically averts that conclusion; nor does it work out remotely like Cinderella, because if anyone is rescuing anyone, it's the young woman rescuing the prince. And herself, and indeed everyone, in the end. It's magnificent.

The omniscient narrator is unusual these days, but it works; it gives us extra insight into the protagonist when she doesn't have insight into herself yet, without becoming an intrusive character voice in its own right.

The Mexican setting, one I'm not very familiar with, is beautifully and richly portrayed; there's a strong sense of place and of culture. The language, vocabulary, and writing mechanics are at a level I see all too seldom from native English speakers. (I assume, from the authentic feel of the Mexican setting, that the author has English as a second language, but I could be wrong there.) There's a thread, evolving ever so slowly and subtly but clearly, of romance, but it doesn't follow a conventional path; nothing in this book does.

I've been through a spell of reading not-very-good books for a while, and this was a welcome breaking of the drought. It's going near the top of my Best of 2019 list, both because it's extremely well done and also because it's exactly the kind of book I most enjoy.

I received a review copy via Netgalley.

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Review: Fatechanger: Penny Lost

Fatechanger: Penny Lost Fatechanger: Penny Lost by L.M. Poplin
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I took a long break from reading this to read something else, and only barely decided to come back and finish it.

The first few chapters are unpromising (hence the break and reluctant return). Far from being any kind of "fatechanger," as per the title, the main character, Penn, lacks much agency. She's thrown unexpectedly through time, in what at first seems like it's a contrived mechanism for the sake of the plot with no real explanation behind it (though later on it turns out that the explanation is... pretty much exactly what I thought it would be if there was an explanation). Once back in 1915, she takes, without much resistance, the first and seemingly only option open to her: she becomes a pickpocket in an Oliver-Twist-like gang of youths (disguised as a boy). She doesn't seem to suffer much in the way of moral angst about this, though we have been shown, prior to her trip through time, that she wasn't above a bit of stealing here and there.

Things pick up a bit once she manages to buy her way out of debt to the Fagin of the thieves (who runs a remarkably fair and unrigged system that allows her to do so), and instead chooses to be a newsboy - though she's not welcomed by the other newsboys, and has to prove herself again. She does this, as she did among the thieves, by being much better than them at what they do (and have been doing for a long time). Her foreknowledge of the significance of the newspaper headlines plays some role, but basically she's just that talented at selling newspapers, somewhat inexplicably given what else we see of her.

There's a marked dichotomy in Penn all the way through, in fact. On the one hand, she's helpless and lacking in options, stranded in another time without the medical treatment she needs for her heart condition, with no idea of even where to begin to look to find her way back to her own time. She has absolutely no knack of making friends, and gets herself resented by both groups she joins. On the other hand, she's incredibly good at everything she tries, ends up with a bunch of friends and allies despite herself, and eventually gets handed the way back without having had to work for it in any way (and without even attempting to do so).

This feels to me like double deprotagonization, both through lack of agency in the situation and also through being handed things she either doesn't earn or earns too easily through excessive natural ability. This, combined with some very basic, though not too frequent, copy editing issues, combined to lower my rating to three stars.

I received a review copy via Netgalley. I assume the errors I noticed are in the published version, since the publication date is in the past.

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Tuesday, 18 June 2019

Review: Knightmare Arcanist

Knightmare Arcanist Knightmare Arcanist by Shami Stovall
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

YA fantasy with a fresh premise - at least, fresh to me: people bond to any of a wide variety of mystical creatures and become arcanists, their powers differing based on the creature they are bonded to. Also, there's a magical plague which drives the creatures mad and corrupts the humans who are bonded to them, and pirates are deliberately spreading it as a terror tactic (and because it can make their creatures' magic more powerful).

It's a premise that's well thought through and well sustained. There's a contained cast - six young people, newly bonded, coming to an arcanists' guild as apprentices, all of whom were easy to tell apart, and most of whom played clear and necessary roles; and no more than four more senior guildspeople, of whom two featured heavily.

There's also a positive adoptive father-figure, who isn't on stage much but is very much present in recollection for the main character. That character is motivated to prove to everyone that he isn't a criminal like his parents, but a noble and good person like his adoptive father, and it's a strong motivation, well handled. He wants to do right, but because of everyone's expectations about him and the way the situation is set up, often ends up breaking the rules in order to do what he thinks ought to be done.

The kids' conflicts are believable and not just cliches, and their characters at least begin to flesh out during the story, in ways that make sense. While there are hints of early attraction that will no doubt cause trouble between them in the future, nothing becomes overt in this book as far as romance between the cast is concerned.

There is the usual hard-to-swallow YA trope of inexperienced apprentices being able to do anything whatsoever against a more powerful and mature foe (and I did spot the roles of "unexpected" villain and unlikely ally coming several miles off), but I think the author pulls it off in the end.

The worldbuilding is fairly light, and mostly centred on the magical creatures (who have their own personalities, particularly the ferretlike rizzel, who's consistently amusing). There are two or three familiar names from the real world, mixed with a lot of made-up names, which was a touch odd; I thought "at least the author doesn't make the common mistake of using biblical names in a setting where Christianity doesn't exist," but then late in the piece there was a cathedral, so perhaps Christianity, or something like it, does exist.

I had a pre-release copy from Netgalley, and the very common issue of missing past perfect tense when referring to earlier events in past tense narration was frequent; it may be reduced (but, given how frequent it is, probably won't be eliminated) by thorough copy editing before publication.

Overall, with those few caveats, this is a sound and entertaining piece of storytelling, and I would happily read more in the series.

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Monday, 3 June 2019

Review: Pricked

Pricked Pricked by Scott Mooney
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Approaches urban fantasy kind of from the back - the entrance marked "Fairy-Tale Universe, with Mystery Plot". But the protagonist, Briar, is the familiar kickass, smartass woman of urban fantasy, though with a somewhat fresh magical power: she can enchant roses to change people's emotions.

This is a power that grows during the story, disturbingly for her. Despite her noir-detective manner, she's good-hearted; she gets involved in the story problem because it looks like the only way to get her friend disenchanted from a curse that appeared to have been meant for Briar. This is a good approach to motivating the character based on her relationships without fridging anyone (since the friend is still around and able to interact, though she doesn't play a big role in the story).

A motivated character in a dynamic situation is always going to work for me, and I was quickly swept up. There were some issues; as is common for American authors, this author conflates nobility and royalty, and doesn't know the correct terms of address for them either. He capitalises terms that don't need it, and the past perfect tense is frequently conspicuous by its absence, which always interrupts the flow of the story for me. He uses "besides" when he means "apart from" (which could be a dialect difference), and has a tendency to said bookisms. In the pre-release version I read from Netgalley, some of the apostrophes were misplaced. The fairy-tale (and New York) references get a bit cutesy or cheesy at times, too. But some lovely phrases partly make up for this: "Do not pass denouement, do not collect happily ever after," or "an ostentatious gown with more blue ribbon in it than Michael Phelps’s bedroom."

I could take or leave the love triangle aspect, personally, but apart from that the plot and character interactions worked well for me, and I was surprised by the twist.

Far from a perfect book, but showing definite strengths, and promise as a series. I really hope the author learns to use the past perfect tense, though.

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Review: Soulmates

Soulmates Soulmates by Mike Resnick
My rating: 0 of 5 stars

DNF at 34%.

What I expected was highly competent and compelling writing from much-lauded professionals.

What I got was lightweight sentimentality, which, in the pre-release version I got from Netgalley, badly needed very basic copy editing.

The stories are linear, the characters minimally developed, and the emotional beats, for me, lacked much punch, though I did enjoy their positivity.

I often read extremely well-written, but dark, fiction and wish it was kinder and happier. Reading this, which is kinder and happier but no more than barely competent, I wished for something that combined the best of both worlds. It must be out there somewhere, but I didn't find it here.

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Review: Ascending

Ascending Ascending by Margaret Pechenick
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A well-edited, well-written story of second contact, with an appealing, if bland, narrator/protagonist, but somewhat lacking for me in character development and worldbuilding.

I say second contact because it's set 25 years after a superior alien civilization comes to Earth, takes a good look, and decides to go away again. Shortly after the story starts, they decide to come back - a controversial decision, and subject to much debate within their own culture.

The book is narrated by a graduate student in linguistics who is the only person, apart from her elderly professor/mentor (involved in the first contact), who can speak their language, after a learning process that (with incredible convenience) ended about three weeks before the aliens unexpectedly and unpredictably returned. I'm prepared to reluctantly allow one convenient coincidence per plot, and happily there are no others. However, that's not the end of my issues with the book (which I nevertheless enjoyed overall).

One thing I've noticed about a lot of SF books being published at the moment is that the actual science is a bit dubious. I'm not talking about the genre conventions of artificial gravity and FTL travel; I mean mistakes like conducting radio communication "in real time" from "the edge of the Sol system" (wherever that is), and a pocket-sized oxygen dispenser that's good for a month (as a supplement, but still). For that matter, nine-sided dice; that isn't a number of faces that can be on a regular polyhedron.

That's one level of the issues I had. Another is that the aliens are just not that alien in a lot of ways, despite part of the point of the whole thing being that the protagonist is immersed in an alien culture. They have weeks and months, though the weeks appear to be eight days long (it's never really discussed). They'll kick a person under the table to tell them to shut up. The women wear dresses. For that matter, they're biologically very humanoid; blue blood, yes, but despite being descended from predators, they mostly eat vegetables, and their bodies are very much the same shape as humans'. They have one language (with some dialects) and effectively one culture, despite being a multiplanetary species. There's really not much about them that couldn't plausibly be part of a human culture.

They're stronger and faster than humans, with better eyesight and hearing, and are quicker to learn (everyone on the ship speaks fluent English, despite the fact that some are not at all fans of humanity). They're a largely nonviolent society. But they do have flaws. They're excessively obedient to authority, they apparently don't screen their spaceship crews very well at all, and their computer systems are hard to learn to use (which, as someone in the industry, I can tell you points to poor design).

Then, I didn't feel like the characters had a lot of depth, weight, or backstory. Not just the aliens, and the incidental humans we encounter early on, though certainly them; but Avery, the grad student narrator, herself. Even though we get the entire story through her, she never really had that much dimension for me.

She says things that make it clear that she's had boyfriends, but she doesn't talk about any of them specifically - anything she remembers about them, anything she's learned from her mistakes with them. She has parents, but they're lightly sketched in. She mentions a best friend, but unless this is the person she met briefly during training, this best friend isn't ever named and there are no reminiscences about her either. Her roommates are just a couple of names with no qualities attached. It's as if she comes into existence at the beginning of the book, with the most bland and generic background to go with her bland, generic identity as a basic middle-class white girl. She's a good student, but not outstanding; she manages to be, at one and the same time, the obvious candidate to be the first human sent to live among the aliens, and completely average and undistinguished.

Her mentor considers her to have personal qualities of humility, kindness, and patience, which is why he selects her to learn the alien language and be the potential representative of humanity, and while she doesn't show herself to not have those qualities, she didn't, for me, particularly show herself to have them to an unusual degree either.

Despite all of these reservations, I did enjoy the book, and wanted Avery to succeed. I just wish that everything had been a little richer and better developed.

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Review: The Big Book of Classic Fantasy

The Big Book of Classic Fantasy The Big Book of Classic Fantasy by Ann VanderMeer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Firstly, let's be clear: when the editors call this a big book, they're not kidding around. It's enormous.

"Classic" fantasy here extends from the late 18th to the mid-20th century, and the stories (and excerpts from novels) are arranged chronologically, so patterns emerge naturally as you read through. The early stories are not what we think of as short stories today; they're narrations of a series of events, and the characters are barely characters at all, just names with a couple of qualities attached. They tend not to drive the story particularly; they respond to events, but they aren't true protagonists.

By the mid-to-late 19th century, things have settled down, and writers have figured out plot and character pretty much as we know them today, though both continue to be enriched and refined over the following years. Until, that is, the early 20th century, when various experimental writers take things in new directions - directions that mostly proved unfruitful, I have to say. The modernist pieces are, to my ear, overwritten, repetitious, slow-moving and excessively descriptive at the expense of plot and character. We are back where we started in some ways: plots replaced by a series of events, characters replaced by names and vague qualities, effective protagonism largely absent.

Then comes the pulp era, and things pick up again (for my taste). The descriptions can still be a bit over-rich, but we have characters with goals driving plots to a satisfying conclusion. The characters can still be a bit thin, but they demonstrate their thoughts and feelings in action rather than reflection.

The collection ends with a Tolkien story, "Leaf by Niggle," which, like most of the better-known pieces, I'd read before, but which I very much enjoyed re-reading.

There's a mixture of very well-known classics, starting with Poe's "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar," with more obscure pieces and authors, some of them originally written in other languages and here in English for, in many cases, the first time. As with other anthologies that attempt this kind of thing, I sometimes felt that the pieces had deserved their obscurity, though there were one or two gems. For example, before I'd even finished reading the excerpt from Living Alone, I went and downloaded the whole book from Project Gutenberg and read it before continuing with this book. The charming voice that had drawn me to it turned out to be its greatest, almost its only, strength, but I was glad to have discovered it.

I did skip a couple of stories in whole or in part. I'd read Kafka's Metamorphosis before, a long time ago, and had no particular desire to re-read it; and one of the stories became so tedious that I eventually skipped ahead to the next one. I considered doing this with several others, as well. Parts of the book I found a slog; see above about overwriting and deserved obscurity.

I suspect that this anthology is intended largely as a textbook, like the Norton anthologies that we had when I studied English at university. As a textbook, it provides a lot of fine material for analysis; it's deliberately wide-ranging, bringing in examples of many literary movements from multiple countries, while not neglecting the well-known English and American classics. As a straight read-through for entertainment, it's uneven, and sometimes, for my taste, not enjoyable at all. But it's certainly a monumental effort by the editors, and I commend their ambition, even if I didn't love every part of the result.

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Review: Lightwave: Clocker: Folding Space Series Book 1.0

Lightwave: Clocker: Folding Space Series Book 1.0 Lightwave: Clocker: Folding Space Series Book 1.0 by AM Scott
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book has several all-too-common problems, and so despite the fact that it was otherwise generally competent, I'm unlikely to read a sequel.

First, the problem of people who don't know much science trying to write science fiction. The justification for why someone is travelling around "tuning" atomic clocks is one of the most egregious bits of nonsensical technobabble (combined with mysticism) that I've seen. Also, the author speaks as if constellations are real astronomical groupings of stars physically close to one another, rather than imaginary groupings of stars that happen to be in the same part of Earth's sky (but are often physically far apart).

Then, some of the very common editing issues. It seems that a lot of authors these days don't understand how the past perfect tense works, and there are several dozen examples in this book where it should have been used instead of simple past, but wasn't. There are also occasional excess commas between non-coordinating adjectives (a very common error; the comma usage is otherwise good, and the apostrophes are all correct.) And there are some glaring dangling modifiers, and a few straight-out typos. It's far from the worst I've seen, certainly, but there are so many of them (especially the missing past perfect) that I was constantly brought up short and distracted from the story.

The story itself is OK; the beginning of an extremely slow-burn romance which, in this book, mostly consists of both attracted parties repeatedly noting to themselves the obstacles to acting on the attraction; and a half-hearted mystery plot with many suspects and no detective to speak of, which resolves itself abruptly. There are a couple of decent action sequences towards the end, and we're shown good-hearted characters who in at least some cases have a degree of depth and backstory. It's very far from terrible, but it's not outstanding either.

Just OK.

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Review: Ravenstone: The Complete Saga

Ravenstone: The Complete Saga Ravenstone: The Complete Saga by M.S. Verish
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

One of the key questions I ask myself when summing up a book is, "Would I read a sequel?"

It's telling, then, that with the sequel actually included in the same volume - no effort or expense at all involved in getting it - my answer at the end of the first book is "no".

A bland and trite fantasy world. An unimaginative quest. Incompetent characters with not much depth to them, and three out of the four of them end up having exactly the same trauma (having killed someone). But what really puts me off is the language.

At first inconsistently, but later on most of the time, it's written in what I think of as Vancian prose: excessively ornate, and therefore distancing. People don't just say things; they "utter" and "voice". I don't enjoy that even when Jack Vance does it, and he at least does it competently. Few other people do, and these authors are not among those few. For example, they seem to think that "obviate" means "make obvious," which it certainly does not.

The prose therefore ends up as a clumsy disaster, like a clown in a crowded broom closet.

A better story, better characters, or a better setting might have tempted me to read on, but with all of those mediocre at best, the terrible prose was too much to wade through for a second volume.

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Friday, 26 April 2019

Review: The Clockwork Detective

The Clockwork Detective The Clockwork Detective by R.A. McCandless
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoy a young female protagonist, and even though this particular young female protagonist might as well be a man for most purposes, she's determined, competent, perceptive, and an excellent negotiator who thinks well in a dangerous situation - things we're shown rather than told, to the author's credit.

There's a mystery plot, which played out well, but also an underlying political plot which is part of a larger series arc. There are tense confrontations and powerful moments of action and magic.

The setting is steampunk, but with a strong magical component from the Fae; there's the usual lighter-than-hydrogen gas for the airships, clockwork where clockwork doesn't necessarily make a lot of sense (in a prosthetic leg), and the rest of the steampunk trappings that you just have to take a deep breath and swallow.

The protagonist serves a somewhat corrupt and potentially dystopian empire, something that I hope will lead to more conflicts later in the series.

I read a pre-release copy from Netgalley, which needed an awful lot of copy editing work, even more than average for steampunk (which is typically a lot); I hope it gets it, though inevitably even a really good copy editor will still miss things. For an author who boasts of two decades of experience and a degree in communication and creative writing, the punctuation, grammar, and vocabulary errors are extraordinarily numerous.

Leaving that aside, I enjoyed it as a story, and would consider reading another in the series, though I'd probably want to read it after it had been thoroughly edited rather than before.

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Saturday, 6 April 2019

Review: Ricochet

Ricochet Ricochet by Kathryn Berla
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Unusual, in that it's told from the viewpoints of four different versions of one 17-year-old girl, living in alternate realities.

Two are living in America, with loving adoptive parents. Tati has a pretty idyllic life, apart from the fact that she has random and medically inexplicable seizures. Ana doesn't have it quite so good, but her life is OK. She has the seizures too.

So does Tanya, who escaped from Russia with her increasingly mentally unstable mother, and isn't allowed to leave their run-down house. And so does Tatiana, who lives in luxury with her scientist father and aunt in her native Moscow.

When the girls begin to cross between worlds, it sets off a suspenseful sequence of events in each of the realities, and nothing will ever be the same again for any of them.

I was enjoying this up until the ending, which I felt short-changed most of the characters - especially the ones that had been most protagonistic. But it wasn't so disappointing as to drop a star, and for other readers it may work better than it did for me.

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Review: Royal Rescue

Royal Rescue Royal Rescue by A. Alex Logan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I try to read a few books each year with protagonists whose experience of life is very different from mine as a middle-aged straight white man. This one has an asexual protagonist, which is an experience of life I knew very little about going in. I enjoyed it as a well-written story, and also for what it taught me.

Prince Gerald, the protagonist, is certainly neurotic, in the technical sense of experiencing a lot of negative emotion. That seems like an understandable consequence of having hardly anyone (not even your pretty decent cousin) believe you when you say you don't have any desire for a romantic or sexual relationship, and never will, and being caught up in a system where there's just no place for you.

In Prince Gerald's world, there's peace between nations, and part of the reason is that the old prince-rescues-princess-from-a-tower thing has become institutionalized. It's evolved in some ways; princesses can rescue princes, or rescue other princesses, or princes can rescue other princes, and there are also princexes (nonbinary royals), and nobody turns a hair at any of this. Gerald's parents are both women. But what the system does not allow for is someone who doesn't want to rescue, or be rescued by (and therefore marry) anyone at all; and it's abusive to the tower guardians, to boot, magical or semi-magical creatures who are coerced into their roles and harmed in various ways by the whole process.

Gerald wants to change the system, and with the help of a very supportive and open-minded desert prince; his cousin Erick, who's good with magic; and Erick's rescuee, a take-charge princess from a country where women aren't allowed to be in charge - not to mention the freed dragon who was his tower guardian - he sets out to do so.

It's hard to write a protagonist-changes-abusive-system novel. The whole thing about systems is that they're hard to change, a lot of people don't want them to change for various reasons, and it's not straightforward to find a satisfactory replacement. I did feel that the resolution in this book came a bit more easily than would be likely in real life, and that everyone was more reasonable and open to change than real people tend to be, but as I say, this theme is hard, and it was a pretty good job all told. The copy editing is excellent, especially for a book received from Netgalley in a pre-publication state, and I suspect this should be put down to the author knowing their craft and tools. There was a good depiction of disability, as well.

One thing I did notice was that the female characters right across the board were inclined to arrange other people's lives for them "for their own good" without a lot of consultation, whereas the male characters were a lot more open and accepting and much better listeners. I'm not going to speculate about what in the author's life experience might have led to these differences; I just note them. Also, there was a pronounced absence of personal servants throughout, though the whole point of the rescue system was to make the royals self-reliant, which might explain that.

Despite those couple of minor quibbles, this easily joins my best-of list for 2019. Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for providing a copy for review.

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Review: The View From Castle Always

The View From Castle Always The View From Castle Always by Melissa McShane
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Melissa McShane has been regularly making my Best of the Year list lately, and books like this are why.

The old enchanted castle trope is a good one, and here it's handled well and with some originality. Not only do different parts of the castle look out on different parts of the world (including from different windows in the same room), but the castle's purpose seems to be to give questers their choice of token and then shove them out the exit to meet their destiny.

But Alianthe, who has only come to the castle because the trees of her woodland home have rejected her, is trapped in the castle, and it won't let her leave. It may even be trying to kill her.

Fortunately, she has company: a man who came in, not in quest of anything, but in order to get out of the rain, and who is stubbornly refusing to choose a token, because he doesn't want to be shoved out in some random part of the world to live or die at the whim of fate; he just wants to go home.

Cue slow-burn romance - interrupted when a would-be chivalrous idiot comes questing and refuses to leave without rescuing Alianthe, who is perfectly capable of rescuing herself. Meanwhile, the castle is becoming stranger and more dangerous all the time (but so is Alianthe, rather to her disquiet).

A terrific twist ending; some good-quality reflection on the nature of choice, goodness, and heroism; and a delightful cat all combine with excellent editing and strong writing to take this to five stars, and into a high position on my Best of 2019.

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Review: Captain Marvel

I say in my blog tagline that I review "books and the very occasional movie". The movie reviews have been extremely occasional, and will probably continue to be, for a few reasons.

Firstly, I don't watch all that many movies.

Secondly, the movies I do watch are pretty much all popular ones that thousands of other people are going to review, and that generally don't have a great many depths to explore. These are the movies I like; I won't pretend otherwise.

And thirdly, I don't feel I have the same insight into the movie genre as I do into written fiction. I write fiction; I haven't, and probably never will, come anywhere close to writing a screenplay. (Though if anyone knows Taika Waititi, I have an urban fantasy novel series set in Auckland I'd like to discuss with him...)

Anyway, with those disclaimers made, I saw Captain Marvel the other day, and enjoyed it. The power was scheduled to be out at our house so that maintenance work could be done on the lines, and we decided going to a movie was the obvious play.

What interested me about Captain Marvel was that it's a kind of movie that wouldn't have been made just a few years ago. It's a superhero action-adventure, but with a woman protagonist who hasn't been raped, doesn't have a love interest anywhere in sight, has a close female friend, a female mentor... This is not how Hollywood used to make its movies. There was a maximum of one major female character, and she did not have a character arc; she was there for the men, because of course she was.

There are men in the movie. Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) plays the sidekick, and plays him very Watsonly. Jude Law (speaking of Watson) plays the Damn Patriarchy. Most of the rest of the protagonist's initial team are men, except for one other woman who doesn't like her (emphasising her lack of fit in the team); but none of them are really developed much. They're like the dwarves in The Hobbit who aren't Thorin. The title character is the main character, and is also most definitely the protagonist. She's competent, confident, in charge, and taking no crap from anyone. Her undaunted stare alone is worth the price of admission.

I enjoyed the moment when her honorary niece, her best friend's daughter, encourages her mother to go off on the adventure, because if she didn't, "think about what kind of example you'd be setting for your daughter". I have the feeling we are going to see that little girl again in some future Marvel movie.

There's a major plot twist about halfway through that, if you reflect on it at all, is a commentary on current international affairs, but also works really well as a pivotal moment for a character in search of her identity.

And someone was credited at the end as "Cat Trainer". I'm sure that was a difficult job, but the cat scenes were great, whether by the cat trainer's ability or by CGI, who can even tell these days?

So, what were the movie's flaws? Well, the protagonist's powers worked by handwavium and we never did understand exactly how, but that's standard for superhero movies. Once they were inside the secure facility, there was very little evidence of security, but that, too, is standard in the action movie genre. They found the information they needed extremely fast, but searching for clues in real time is boring, and it's an accepted convention that, whether you're looking on a computer or in a set of files, you will find what you need almost instantaneously. So... no criticisms that don't apply to the whole genre and its tropes.

I can't quite bring myself to give five stars to a movie that's light enough that I would watch it, so it gets four. But it's a big four. Definitely five-adjacent.

Saturday, 23 March 2019

Review: Kingdoms of the Cursed: The High and Faraway, Book Two

Kingdoms of the Cursed: The High and Faraway, Book Two Kingdoms of the Cursed: The High and Faraway, Book Two by Greg Keyes
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read the first in the series, and enjoyed it enough that when I saw this one on Netgalley I asked for a copy for review. I did have some hesitations; I felt the first one had pumped the archetypes pedal a bit too hard, at the expense of more subtle character development.

This one doesn't feel as overdone in the archetypes department, but it does feel disjointed to me. This is partly because, rather than being together as they were in most of the first book, the three viewpoint characters spend most of this second book widely separated, having their own adventures, which don't always seem to be particularly directed at a shared goal. Most of the time, they're trying to survive, and/or find each other, but they're also trying to rescue various people, with mixed success. This gives plenty of opportunities to leave one character at a cliffhanger and switch to another, but I sometimes found that by the time the viewpoint switched back I'd forgotten the earlier character's situation - a sign that the plot wasn't coherent and cohesive enough, I think. Several of the key characters who recurred from the earlier book were ones I didn't remember at all, too. The book does open with a rather on-the-nose as-you-know-Bob recap, addressed by one character to her diary, which at least reminded me who these people were and why they were fighting; it could have been done a lot more subtly, but it achieved the purpose.

Aster, the young sorceress, spends a lot of the book confused, lacking in confidence and direction, and, for a while, very vulnerable. Veronica, the semi-undead girl trying not to be a monster, has probably the strongest arc, one that leaves her boyfriend, Errol, the third viewpoint character, rather high and dry by the end. He's... susceptible to damsels in distress, and by the end, Veronica isn't in distress. She has her own thing going on, though it wasn't completely clear to me (maybe even to her) exactly what that is.

Errol... I wasn't quite sure what was going on with him either. He had to find his courage; he certainly found reasons to live (having ended up involved in the adventure indirectly because of a suicide attempt back before the start of Book 1). But the whole thing was so muddied by a lot of wandering about in wonder-filled but inconclusive directions that I spent a lot of the book just waiting for clarity that never really emerged.

This isn't at all a rules-based fantasy universe, by the way. It's more at the mythic end. Parts of the world (multiverse?) are always stuck at particular times of day or night; all the adults are statues, or monsters, or disappeared (though there seems to be a fairly wide latitude in the definition of "adult"); nobody seems to have to eat or engage in agriculture, which is just as well, given that there's no day in some places, no night in others, and weather seems to be just as arbitrary and unvarying. Ships fly for no readily apparent reason and without an obvious mechanism. It's a dreamlike world, reminiscent of Peter Pan's Neverland in many ways, and while that is wonderful in a sensawunda kind of way, it doesn't help with making sense of what is going on.

I will give it four stars, with some slight reluctance, because it is filled with unexpected wonders, but it would be more compelling if the plot was tighter and the characters were more goal-directed.

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Sunday, 17 March 2019

Review: The Smoke-Scented Girl

The Smoke-Scented Girl The Smoke-Scented Girl by Melissa McShane
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I've become a Melissa McShane fan over the past little while. Her books consistently make it into my Best of the Year roundups, because they're well crafted, extremely well edited, and usually feature determined, principled, capable young women as protagonists (my favourite kind of protagonist).

This one is a little different in a few ways. The less important way is that the determined, principled, capable young woman is not the viewpoint character or the protagonist; that's a determined, principled, capable young man who eventually figures out he's in love with her. One of the more important ways in which it's different from other McShane books is that it achieves and sustains a higher level of tension. The slower beginning/action-packed ending pattern is still there, but I didn't notice it as strongly, because from early on we have a motivated protagonist in a dynamic situation, plenty at stake, and lots happening.

The other important difference in this book is that the world feels richer and deeper than in other McShane books I've read. Not that it's bad in those other books, just that this one has some extra touches that make me believe in it. The names, for instance; I pay a lot of attention to character names, and these feel like the author has paid attention to them as well. They don't fall into the trap of familiar biblical names in a world where Christianity doesn't exist; they're made up, but they're made up in a way that makes them both easy to remember and credible. There are repeating patterns to the surnames, for example, suffixes which several surnames have in common - the kind of thing that happens in real life.

The world feels three-dimensional and lived-in, not thrown together out of scenery flats like so many fantasy worlds, but this is achieved by a few subtle touches rather than a series of infodumps. It's broadly similar to, but not simply a version of, Napoleonic-era Britain (a period the author has researched as background for another series), and there's a good balance between elements of similarity and elements of difference. The whole thing feels both authentic and thought through, and given how often I ding books set in the 19th century or its equivalent for missing both of those marks, I appreciate that very much.

The characters are delightful: the brilliant young mage who doubts himself and has trouble getting people to take him seriously because he's so young; the cursed young woman dealing with her fate as best she can, and making a decent job of it; the seemingly foppish friend who is clearly much more competent than he lets on, loyal to the death, and closer than a brother; the petty bureaucrat pigheadedly determined to do the wrong thing; the jealous former teacher who contradicts the wunderkind at every turn; the no-nonsense, experienced older woman who trusts the young people to get it right; even the incidental, nameless characters met along the way have a sense of solidity to them.

These are new heights for an always-entertaining author, and I look forward to reading many more of her books.

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Review: Stone of Inheritance

Stone of Inheritance Stone of Inheritance by Melissa McShane
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoyed the first of this series enough, and have found the author consistent enough, that I preordered this one - something I rarely do. I wasn't disappointed, either.

This is essentially D&D fiction, but with enough original touches to the magic system and the world that it doesn't feel too derivative. One difference I appreciated from a lot of D&D-style fiction (and most actual games as they are played): there are competent authorities in this world, and people generally assume that they're safe, that their enemies won't start anything in a public place because the authorities would deal with them capably and justly.

There are a couple of minor weaknesses. As with the earlier book, the tension is pretty low for a while; it's a slowish start, though the excitement at the end is well worth waiting around for, and it's interesting even when it isn't action-packed. It also seems to recycle a couple of features from another of the author's books, which I read around the same time; The Smoke-Scented Girl also feature spells that cause the caster to taste things, and the image of a ride along a road cut into the landscape with high banks on either side. But those are good features, and no harm in reusing them.

There was a moment - and you'll know it when you get to it - when I was powerfully reminded of my favourite line from Yahoo Serious's Young Einstein: "Oh, come on, Marie! If you can't trust the governments of the world, who can you trust?"

Overall, though, it's a good ride. Dastardly villains, fearsome foes, desperate fights, a sweet, clean romance, determined and principled characters, and a fresh approach to both wizards and clerics combine into an entertaining story. I will happily read the next in the series; I may well preorder it, even.

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Review: Lord of Secrets

Lord of Secrets Lord of Secrets by Breanna Teintze
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Every so often I encounter a book that I enjoyed while reading it, but somehow had trouble remembering soon afterwards, and this is one. I can't put my finger on why.

It had some good elements, definitely. Motivated protagonist (his grandfather has been captured by the bad guys and is probably being tortured). Dynamic situation (there's a race on for an artefact that could unleash horrible undead warriors and plunge the world into war, or might save the grandfather, and the protagonist has clues to where it is and how to retrieve it). The protagonist is principled; unlike other wizards, he insists on bearing the physical cost of magic himself rather than pushing it off onto other people. He hates slavery, and will risk himself to free slaves, even one who has betrayed him.

The world is dark and troubled, the antagonists are a scary sociopath and a complete psychopath, and the protagonist has complexity and depth, imperfections and insecurities, courage and determination. His sidekick/secondary antagonist/love interest, the escaped slave, is her own person with her own thing going on; she also has a motivation, a captive sister. That's a bit too much reliance on fridged relatives for me to be absolutely happy with it, but at least the third in their party is coming along out of gratitude to the protagonist's grandfather. Both of them are courageous, intelligent, and resourceful.

Overall, I'd definitely read a sequel, but I'd have to hope that there was a good recap near the beginning.

I received a copy via Netgalley for purposes of review.

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Friday, 1 March 2019

Review: Magic for Liars

Magic for Liars Magic for Liars by Sarah Gailey
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book presents as (urban fantasy) noir: a private investigator, who drinks too much to cope with her loneliness and alienation, is given the opportunity to move up from adulterous spouses and work on an actual murder mystery, at the magical school where her estranged twin sister teaches.

She insists she's fine with the fact that her sister has magic and she doesn't. I spent some of the time nearly believing her, and I think she spent some of the time nearly believing herself. She's a deeply flawed and broken person who I absolutely wanted to succeed, even though that seemed highly unlikely.

There's some more tragic backstory of the kind that could happen in almost any family, which only makes it more effective; and there's a doomed romance with one of the other teachers. Doomed, because the PI tells herself that, for the sake of the investigation, she has to not reveal the fact that she has no magic... hence, I assume, the title, Magic for Liars.

It pulls off the feat of being adjacent to a classic YA story - there's a prophecy about a Chosen One, and all kinds of teen magic-school drama and angst - without that story taking over, or even being taken all that seriously most of the time.

There are some beautifully crafted phrases, like "It was like stealing candy from a big bowl of free candy surrounded by helpful multilingual signposts," or "the bags under my eyes were definitely well past the carry-on limit".

There are herrings of a deep red hue (which had me completely fooled); terrible and wonderful moments of powerful magic; deliberately incomprehensible jargon that the PI pretends to understand, and that imply a complex and deep magical world; poignant interpersonal and intrapersonal moments; and an ending that, somewhat contrary to the noir tradition, holds out some hope (without revealing the outcome of the hope one way or the other). It's powerful, and expertly done, which is why I bumped it up to five stars. It isn't the kind of book that naturally leads to a sequel, but I would certainly read another book by this author, especially if it took place in the same world.

The one significant criticism I have is that the pattern of "reluctant witness is about to finally give the PI a clue, someone interrupts" happens a bit too often.

I received a pre-publication copy from Netgalley for review.

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Review: Spindle's End

Spindle's End Spindle's End by Jessica Marting
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

(Vague spoilers in some of the following.)

The space opera is excessively dependent on Star Trek, and has asteroid fields, extremely short trips over interplanetary distances, and all the usual nonsense, though at least the ship does need fueling (often not the case in space opera).

The romance... well, there's a period of "We can't be together because reasons," and then basically a Doc Brown moment: "But then I figured, what the hell?" And that's the romance subplot. Though at least the hero understands consent, and that a kiss from a woman who's very drunk is not it.

The main plot is totally dependent on a massive coincidence; the villain is about to retrieve something that's been sitting there undiscovered for 104 years, and the protagonists get there first by pure chance.

Two characters have basically the exact same parental issues.

Apart from that, it's pretty mediocre. Not great, but could be a lot worse. A solid three stars.

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Sunday, 17 February 2019

Review: Company of Strangers

Company of Strangers Company of Strangers by Melissa McShane
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I started out thinking of Melissa McShane as "the other Lindsay Buroker," but I've concluded that she writes more varied - yet always good-quality - books, and has slightly better editing. (Buroker's isn't bad, but McShane's is almost impeccable.)

This seems to be the start of a new series, which I will happily follow. It's more D&D-like than her other books, but happily it is not too close to the game; there's no reference to experience, hit points, or leveling up, for example, though people do improve in their abilities (and the kind of spells they can handle) over time.

I thought the way cleric magic works was a nice original touch: the cleric prays for blessings, and they come in the form of symbols burnt onto pre-prepared rice paper squares, which can be used to invoke them as needed.

Here we have a newly trained (female) wizard venturing out on her first adventure with a party, into the wilderness, on a quest to bring back valuable artifacts from an old ruin. They even meet in a series of inns, though by arrangement, not coincidence. As I said, though, it's not all D&D cliche, by any means; it's an enjoyable adventure story with a fresh approach to magic.

If it has a weakness, it's that the wizard-hating person comes to like this specific wizard a bit too easily, and everyone (except the villains, of course) is a bit too nice. I noticed this with the author's urban fantasy series set in the bookstore, as well; everyone seemed nice, friendly, and reasonable, which in some ways is a pleasant contrast to (and, in my experience, more realistic than) the kind of nasty, broken cast you get in so many books these days, but it can tend to suck a bit of tension and conflict out of the story unless carefully handled.

There was plenty of conflict to go round, though, and not everything was rainbows (even if some of it was unicorns). I look forward to the sequel.

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Review: The Lady in the Coppergate Tower

The Lady in the Coppergate Tower The Lady in the Coppergate Tower by Nancy Campbell Allen
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a book in which the romance is (for my taste) done well, the adventure aspects done OK, and the mystery and setting done badly.

First, the best part. This is a "clean" romance; nothing steamier than a kiss, and yet the kisses manage to be more powerful than some romance writers' descriptions of sex. The man is a decent fellow; he may be intelligent, wealthy, and from a prominent family, but he's also kind (genuinely kind, not just we're-told-he's-kind-but-shown-he's-selfish), has respect for his love interest, and is devoted to her interests without being a lapdog. He's also vulnerable without being weak. She, in turn, is intelligent (actually intelligent, not just we're-told-she's-intelligent-but-she-makes-a-series-of-stupid-decisions), determined, capable, and strong without being harsh or cold. Their love story is a partnership, and, at the climax, she rescues him rather than vice versa (many, many points for that). I have no complaints at all about the romance; I wish there were more like this. If it only had the romance part, it would be excellent.

There's nothing exceptional about the adventure aspects. There are some echoes of Dracula and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, though lacking the tension of the first or the social consciousness of the second. The action is almost all at the end, though there's a promise of it at the beginning - which also tells us that vampires exist, strengthening the Dracula comparisons and making us wonder if the mysterious Romanian count is one. If the story only had the adventure part, it would be average.

Now, the steampunk. Steampunk authors constantly disappoint me because they don't do their research and show me an authentic Victorian period, and they don't do their imaginative work and show me a properly thought through speculative version of the Victorian period either. This book has both faults. The author appears to have no idea whatsoever how noble titles work (something that half an hour with Wikipedia could remedy), and the relations between men and women are not remotely period-authentic. A servant, much less a mechanical servant, especially one belonging to the man in the relationship, would not constitute an adequate chaperone, and a man going into a young woman's bedroom, even with the intent to just talk with her as a valued colleague, would be a much bigger deal than we see here. There are a range of ways that one can approach gender roles in steampunk, and this author has chosen the popular "largely ignore the problem and pretend they're moderns" option.

To the problems of imagination. This is what I think of as "high" steampunk. Not only is there a massive submersible, but there are mechanical servants that are widespread enough, and affordable enough, that a widowed seamstress can own one. They're also sophisticated enough that an advanced model can improbably act like Google and, by looking at a drawing (made from memory) of a cabinet of curiosities, figure out not only where all the items came from and what magic they're likely to have, but also, and very unconvincingly, what exact magic must have been used to retrieve them. This provides information towards resolving the mystery without any actual detective work on the part of the main characters. They don't appear to be governed by Asimov's laws - they can harm humans, and don't seem to have to obey them strictly. And yet these widespread, affordable, sophisticated, largely untrammelled artificial people have not apparently caused widespread technological unemployment leading to Luddite resentment; have not revolted against their servant status; and, in general, haven't had any social impact whatsoever.

To me, the biggest opportunity that steampunk offers is to examine the impact of technology on a society quite different from ours - a society which, like ours, is in the throes of social change already. This is an opportunity that steampunk keeps missing, instead opting to use the technology as mere ornamentation. Case in point: in this book, the rebuilt ancient tower in which the heroine's sister is confined has been made to rotate slowly with a massive and complex set of machinery, for no real reason that I could make out - presumably just because it was cool. That's one of the two things that technology is doing here, and the other is providing easy outs for tedious things like travelling without encountering other people, finding out backstory without doing real research, and having servants that can be disabled at key moments without being killed.

So, romance strong; adventure just OK; speculative and historical elements extremely weak. I almost gave it four stars for the romance aspects, but really they're not so amazing as to make up for the weaknesses as far as I'm concerned.

I received an unedited pre-publication copy via Netgalley for review. Accordingly, I won't talk about the copy editing.

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Tuesday, 5 February 2019

Review: The Unicorn Anthology

The Unicorn Anthology The Unicorn Anthology by Peter S. Beagle
My rating: 0 of 5 stars

Peter S. Beagle tends to be thought of - as he tells us in his introduction - as "the unicorn guy", because of his best-known book. That's not how I think of him, though. I think of him as a lit-fic author who uses fantasy tropes, but whose books tend to be dark and tragic, with imperfect people messing up their lives by their bad decisions and turning a potentially wonderful world infused with magic into something sordid and unpleasant.

And that is pretty much what this anthology gives us, which is why I couldn't finish it. All of the stories, as far as I read, are well written (though, as usual, Caitlin R. Kiernan needs more copy editing), but they pretty much without exception take the unicorn, symbol of purity and innocence, and show it being corrupted in some dark, nasty way.

DNF not for quality, but for taste. It's as if a gourmet chef has, with great skill, prepared a unicorn's liver for me. I can admire the technique in the abstract, but I don't want to eat it.

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Monday, 21 January 2019

Review: Poseidon's Academy

Poseidon's Academy Poseidon's Academy by Sarah A Vogler
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Effectively a YA supers story with a skin of Greek myth. The Greek gods were killed in a war with their human slaves centuries ago, and their powers distributed themselves across the human population, so you can be, for example, a Demeter and have the power to grow plants, or a Heracles and be really strong.

The good: It's a fresh premise for a supers novel, and gives the opportunity to drop plenty of Greek mythic stuff, including all kinds of marvellous monsters. There's strong sensawunda in the underwater school filled with beauty and magic.

The bad: there are inevitable Harry Potter echoes whenever you have a magical school, but there are a few too many of them here: acceptance letter, magical plates that fill with whatever food you want in the dining hall, dorm rooms off a common room, staff with names like Madam Mendem (who is the school healer) and Guinevere Grayson. There's also a Sky High moment near the beginning, when the main character's best friend joins her on the roof by having a tree grow and deposit her there. I haven't read Percy Jackson, so I don't know if the parallels there are also too frequent and obvious; it wouldn't surprise me.

There are two Convenient Eavesdrops that are essential to the plot. Two! Now, I realize that in YA, it's difficult to get the kids knowledge of the aduts' plots without a plot device like this, but I still always roll my eyes and think of Five Go Mad in Dorset every time a plucky kid happens to be somewhere and overhear "Rhubarb, rhubarb, secret plans..." And when it happens twice, it's even worse.

Coincidence and poor decision-making pretty much drive the plot, in fact. Even though at the end we're led to believe that key parts of it were orchestrated by the plotters, an important plot token is picked up through a series of events which the plotters couldn't really have influenced. There's not a lot of protagonism from the characters much of the time, and they get off too lightly when they break the rules and endanger their own and each other's lives. There are rather too many in the core cast, and I found myself struggling to remember who had which powers.

There's a very early flashback, introduced by "Her mind flashed back to...". If you're flashing back that early, you're starting in the wrong place.

In the pre-release version I read from Netgalley, there were also a number of awkwardly or incorrectly phrased sentences, which hopefully will be fixed up before publication. A few of them gave hilarious mental images because the literal meaning of the words just hadn't been thought through.

One of the tests I apply to books that have some good and some not-so-good elements is: would I read a sequel? In this case, I think the answer is "no". While there are some well-staged moments and some bravery and determination from the characters, and it's a decently fresh premise, overall the plot is too expected and too reliant on coincidence, and the characters don't develop much depth or individuality. Combined with mediocre sentence-level writing, this adds up to a score of three stars.

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Review: The Philosopher's War

The Philosopher's War The Philosopher's War by Tom Miller
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

War is always stupid and tragic, but I've always thought of World War I as particularly stupid and tragic, possibly because both of my grandmothers lost brothers in it. I wouldn't normally read a book set in WWI, as a result, but I enjoyed the first book in this series so much that I couldn't pass it by. (It was the best book I read in 2017.)

This one didn't disappoint. Here we have Robert Weekes again, 19 years old, sole male flyer in the Rescue and Evacuation Corps (in a world where women have more powerful magic, and drawing sigils in corn powder mixed with sand enables people to fly). He has to contend not only with the hazing and prejudice he suffers as an anomalous interloper, but also with the horrors of war, and with a plan to involve him in a mutiny to prevent the war being won through biological warfare that will kill millions. He has to constantly choose between his lover and his comrades, his duty and his conscience. It comes close to tearing him apart before the end.

I will say, it's a very American view of WWI; the Americans win the war, and the British and Commonwealth (and French) troops go mostly or entirely unmentioned.

One thing I did appreciate, however, was that the morally correct but legally dubious actions of the central characters gain them official displeasure, censure, and punishment (though not as much as early hints led me to expect), and that it's based in large part on powerful men's dislike of the existence of powerful women. The religious extremists who were such a key part of the first book are only briefly referred to in this one, but there's always the awareness that if they handle matters badly, the conspirators will not only draw down dire consequences on themselves, but on others like them.

A coming of age in a terrible set of circumstances, with strong and varied action sequences that mean something emotionally rather than just being there for decoration, and constant inner conflict to match the outer conflict that fuels and drives it. It's wonderfully written, too, and I look forward eagerly to the next in the series.

I received a pre-publication copy from Netgalley for review.

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