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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Review: Tess of the Road

Tess of the Road Tess of the Road by Rachel Hartman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoyed the two Seraphina books tremendously, so when I saw this, set in the same world and starring Seraphina's younger half-sister, I eagerly picked it up.

It's very much a road-trip story, almost a picaresque (the episodic adventures of a rogue), though Tess isn't really as much of a rogue as she thinks she is. The drawback of this is that, because the journey is explicitly more important than the destination, the plot can seem a bit meandering and unanchored. And it's not a short book.

That's largely made up for by the strong interiority of the main character. Tess is initially unappealing; she'll cut off her nose to spite her face, she's irresponsible, resentful, and rebellious seemingly for rebellion's sake. However, she's also living with the consequences of some bad decisions, and making just enough effort to do better that I was prepared to give her a chance.

I'm glad I did. Her inner journey is mostly more interesting than her outer journey, and much more the point of the story, and the author handles it expertly. The slow unrolling of her tragic backstory serves to keep up the suspense, and culminates in a shocking moment of revelation.

Tess has to pretend to be a man in order to be safe on the road and to be taken seriously, and there is plenty of exploration of male-female dynamics. It's not preachy or one-dimensional, though; there are several good men in the story. A sidelight is provided by Tess's childhood friend, the reptilian quigutl, who was female when they first met but is now male. The quigutls' alien viewpoint provides an interesting counterpoint to Tess's exploration of her own culture's unexamined beliefs.

I listened to this as an audiobook, so I can't comment much on the copy editing, except to say that a crevasse is not a crevice, and a baronet is not a baron, or anything like one. Apart from these glitches, I had no issue with the prose or the worldbuilding.

This is marked as the first in a new series, and I will definitely read a sequel when it arrives.

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Review: Pendulum Heroes

Pendulum Heroes Pendulum Heroes by James Beamon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I don't generally read LitRPG, which this arguably is (it's the old "D&D players drawn into the world of the game" premise, which goes back almost as far as the game itself). I decided to give this one a shot, though, because the blurb intrigued me - particularly the teenage boy stuck as a warrior princess in a chainmail bikini - and I recognised the author's name from a writers' forum we both belong to. (I don't think we've ever directly interacted there, and I don't believe this connection influenced my rating.)

It's capably done, not just your standard campaign transcript or thud-and-blunder pulp, but with enough extra depth to make it more interesting and thought-provoking. In particular, it highlights the shallowness of teen boys who delight in death and destruction without empathy, or are thoughtless in their attitudes to women. It's not preachy, though; it shows rather than tells.

The plot is standard enough, a travelling quest in which the party faces multiple and varied challenges, but it's kept moving well and enjoyably executed. The characters are distinct, and have a bit of depth to them, particularly Rich, Melvin, and Melvin's older veteran brother Mike. There's a lightly sketched romantic triangle to provide extra tension.

I enjoyed it, and I would read a sequel.

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

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Review: Hero Status

Hero Status Hero Status by Kristen Brand
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I saw this recommended by a friend, Samantha Dunway Bryant, who is herself an author of superhero fiction. It's a genre I enjoy, and the premise sounded promising, so I grabbed the sample. Seeing few copy editing issues (especially as compared with the usual low superhero-fiction standard) and a motivated protagonist in a dynamic situation, I bought the book, and was glad I did.

It reminded me very much of a noir detective novel, with the protagonist getting beaten up repeatedly and having to deal with mobsters in order to help the femme fatale (who, in this case, is his wife). He solves the case through sheer perseverance combined with ingenuity, which is a combination I always enjoy.

The setup with the supers is (as such things go) believable, the plot was textbook, and the protagonist/narrator was appealing and relatable.

This is the start of a series, and although the next one, from the viewpoint of the supervillain wife, isn't as appealing to me as this one, I may well read it and/or others when I'm next in the mood for some well-written superhero fiction.

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Review: The Raven Tower

The Raven Tower The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I always seem to begin my reviews of Ann Leckie's books by remarking that she has the fortunate/unfortunate situation of having written a first book so amazing that all her others will be compared to it; and that so far, for me, none of her other books have quite equalled it. That's the case again with this one, her first fantasy novel. It's good - I'd even say very good - but in the shadow of her first book, not quite as outstanding.

Once again, it plays with point of view. This time, Leckie has chosen to write much of it in the difficult and much-despised second person. That can easily be a gimmick, and while reading I was never 100% convinced that it wasn't, but thinking about it, and especially reflecting on the ending, I've decided it was justified. The narrator is a god, who fills in a lot of important historical backstory in first person - backstory that isn't available to the protagonist in any way. But for most of the book, the god is largely passive, participating in events but not obviously driving them; it's the "you" character who is the protagonist, speaking to people and doing things and taking risks.

Once again, it plays with gender; the protagonist is a trans man, which is fairly incidental as far as the plot goes, but important to him.

Once again, it manages to both be personal and also have epic scope, which is a difficult balancing act. It can all too easily drop into a Great Man version of history with a full-on Chosen One whose every action is fated and bears vast significance; yet Leckie manages to hold it back from that precipice, to show us people with flaws and insecurities who are nevertheless able to participate in momentous events. In this case, the twist at the end gives rise to doubts about who was actually the protagonist after all.

On the face of it, it's a relatively simple story. The protagonist is a soldier, aide to the heir to the position of Raven's Lease, a kind of proxy of the god known as the Raven. They arrive back from the disputed southern border, whence they have been recalled because the current Raven's Lease, the heir's father, was unwell, to discover a Hamletesque coup has been enacted and the heir's uncle has taken over as Lease. For the good of everyone, he assures anyone who will listen.

The heir is petulant and brooding, the aide (Horatio, presumably) patient and effective, the Ophelia character sensible and competent - and very sane. While the Hamlet parallels are obvious (the Ophelia's counsellor father even gets stabbed, and the heir is blamed), they aren't followed slavishly; each element has a twist to it, and the ending is quite different.

Interwoven with all of this is the millenia-long backstory of the struggles and conquests of the gods, which turns out to be a lot more significant than I initially realised to what seems to be the main plot.

It's a clever, complex idea, well executed, which is to say that it's an Ann Leckie book. I dithered about whether to give it five stars, because the ending subverted my narrative expectations so thoroughly as to be a kind of disappointment, but for sheer quality I'm going to award the fifth star.

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

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Tuesday, 1 January 2019

Top Books for 2018

This is my fifth annual roundup of the books I read in a year. Earlier instalments are here: my top 17 books for 2017,  my top 16 books for 2016 (actually only 15), my top 15 books for 2015, and my top 14 books for 2014. Note that these are books I read in those years, not books published in those years - though these days I am reading a lot from Netgalley, which are often advance copies of books that haven't yet been published, so a higher proportion of my reading is books published in the year I read them.

There's a Zen story about a monk who went to the market square and overheard a conversation between a butcher and his customer.
"Which is your best cut of meat?" said the customer.
"They are all the best," said the butcher. "I have nothing here that isn't the best."
Hearing this, the monk was enlightened.

Sadly, I can't say the same for the books I read in 2018. In fact, my feeling is that they're a poorer crop than in previous years. I read more books than last year, but - well, let's look at the numbers.

My total numbers are up again, with 94 (complete) books read for the first time, instead of the 85 I read in 2017 and the 77 I read in 2016. Here are my figures in a table:

5 star4 star3 star2 starTotal
201857215294
2017105619085
2016115312177
20151168192101
2014970232104

Quantity is up, but quality is down a bit; only six five-star books this year, and one of them was a re-read, which I've not counted in the figures, so effectively half as many five-star discoveries as was usual in the past few years. And I was overall less satisfied with the books, and felt I was being more generous with my ratings than perhaps I should be. Not sure exactly what's going on there; maybe I'm just getting fussier.

Once again, the bulk of the books I read get four stars, meaning I enjoyed them and they were well done, but they weren't so well done or so enjoyable that they deserved a fifth star. Three-star books I didn't dislike, but they were either significantly lacking in their execution or failed to enthuse me; a two-star book, for me, is pretty much a failure, neither well executed nor enjoyable, though showing some hint of potential that lifts it above one star. I got suckered into finishing a couple of books that ended up with two stars, something I managed to avoid last year. I don't usually finish books I think are going to be one (or two) stars, and I don't rate books I don't finish.

Goodreads' five-star rating system isn't really nuanced enough for me, and I've tried a couple of different hacks over the years to make up for the lack of half stars. This year's hack, which I think I'll keep, is to create a Goodreads shelf for the books I think deserve to go on the Year's Best list, and put them on that shelf as I read them. I shelved 19 books this way, so I decided to break my arbitrary pattern of matching the number of books on the list to the calendar year. I was planning to stop doing that in 2021 in any case, and just stick with a top 20, but now my plan is just to have however many top books I have.

I was curious about whether it was because I was getting so many books from Netgalley that the quality was down. Many of the Netgalley books have not yet had their final copyedit, and some of them are not formatted properly for my e-reader, which inevitably drags my enjoyment down no matter how hard I try to ignore it. So I did some analysis. Ten of the 19 Year's Best books were from Netgalley (including two of the five five-stars), as were 24 of the 54 four-star books that didn't make it to Year's Best, but only four of the 15 three-stars. Both of the two-star books were from Netgalley. So out of 94 books, 40 were from Netgalley (fewer than I thought; I would have said at least half), and 34 of those were at least four-star or better. It doesn't seem to be Netgalley dragging down the quality; the opposite, if anything, though both two-star books came from there. I may have felt more obligated to finish them than I otherwise would have, because I had been DNFing a good many books from Netgalley, and you're supposed to review a certain percentage.

Top-Rated Books

So, here is my list, ranked in reverse order (your taste may well vary). There's one nonfiction book this year. I've started reading more nonfiction books, after a long period of reading hardly any, but only one of them made the Year's Best list.

Links are, as usual, to my Goodreads reviews.

First, the ones that didn't quite make it to five stars but were very strong four-star books:

19. Sorcerer to the Crown, Zen Cho. Barely squeaks in, because I felt it fell apart a bit towards the end, but if you are looking for pitch-perfect Victorian balanced by some modern perspectives, this is the place to go.

18. The Story Peddler, Lindsay A. Franklin. Scores low mainly because it's dystopian, and I dislike dystopian, but it's on the list because it managed to be a dystopian I didn't dislike. A determined heroine was a big part of the appeal.

17. The Iron Codex, David Mack. Dark, but not grimdark, blending post-WWII spies with ceremonial magic in a fresh and ultimately enjoyable combination.

16. Lost Solace, Karl Drinkwater. Space opera adventure, and yes, she's a rebel and a supersoldier, but it does "motivated protagonist in a dynamic situation" so well that I was swept along, despite this not normally being my genre.

15. Foundryside, Robert Jackson Bennett. The last of the "things I don't usually like done too well to ignore" books on the list, this one gives us another motivated, competent, principled female protagonist in a dynamic situation (all of which I do like, very much), in a setting where uncaring plutocrats grind the faces of the poor (that's the bit I usually don't care for).

14. Broad Band: The Untold Story of the Women Who Made the Internet, Claire L. Evans. The sole nonfiction book on this year's list reminds us of the forgotten contribution of women to computer programming and the Internet. It's a well-written piece of journalism, and a fascinating story.

13. The Dragon Machine, Ben S. Dobson. The first book in the Magebreakers series made it to last year's list at #8; the second, for me, wasn't quite listworthy, but this third volume deserves its spot. The detective duo has great chemistry, and the half-orc half of it delights once again with her zest for life.

12. The Lord of Stariel, AJ Lancaster. A fresh secondary-world fantasy involving the inheritance of a magical estate. The no-nonsense protagonist was a big part of the appeal.

11. ScalesNicole Conway. A supers story, of sorts, and a YA, which could easily mean "cliche-ridden" but in this case doesn't. Fresh and appealing.

10. Shift, M.A. George. An alternate-worlds story with a heroine driven by love for her brother, providing a great engine to keep the story moving.

9. The Book of Peril, Melissa McShane. This is McShane's third appearance on my top list in as many years (she also had an honorable mention on last year's list, as well as making the #13 spot in both 2016 and 2017), and although the first in this series didn't quite make it onto the list because of a lack of urgency, this one deserves its place. A fine noblebright ending that overturns expectations.

8. Navigating the Stars, Maria V. Snyder. Another YA, and another space opera, which could easily have been by-the-numbers in the hands of a lesser talent. Some fresh worldbuilding, an intriguing out-there premise (involving mysterious vanished aliens who transported Chinese terracotta warriors to other planets), and a delightful protagonist voice.

7. Heroine Complex, Sarah Kuhn. More supers (it is one of my favourite genres), but the story is really about friendship, rivalry, and being noticed or not noticed.

6. A Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, Becky Chambers. Some people don't like this because it's not a relentless space opera adventure. I like it because it's warm and humane and all about the relationships.

Now, the five-star books:

5. The Epic Crush of Genie Lo, F.C. Yee. Supers again, but this time out of Chinese myth (The Journey to the West), relocated to the present-day San Francisco Bay Area. An enjoyable insight into Chinese-American culture with a strong comedic tone.

4. Legion: The Many Lives of Stephen Leeds, Brandon Sanderson. Sanderson's Shadows of Self hit #6 on last year's list; this one's higher rank in part reflects a year with not as many very good books, but it's a carefully crafted, complex book with one of the author's trademark out-of-the-box premises.

3. Good Guys, Steven Brust. The author sets himself a considerable writing challenge and defeats it by sheer talent and experience. Morally complex, which is not a euphemism for "full of despicable characters"; instead, it's full of flawed characters in an imperfect situation who are striving to be better people and do the right thing, whatever that is.

2. A Closed and Common Orbit, Becky Chambers. Yes, the second book is even better than the first. A tighter cast allows for a deeper immersion in two parallel stories of what it means to be free and a person.

1. Sourdough, Robin Sloan. Someday Robin Sloan will write a perfect book; this isn't it, but it's closer than ever (for me; some people seem to hate it, probably because it involves millennial hipsters). A beautiful reflection on culture (in multiple senses), work and its meaning, and our relationships with food and technology.

Author Gender Breakdown

I started compiling figures last year for author gender (based on what's stated on their Goodreads profiles) for my top list. Without operating a quota system of any kind, I've tended to find myself reading about 50/50 male and female authors overall, but the numbers in my top lists skew female most years. This year was no exception.

Note that I messed up in 2016 and actually only posted a top 15, not a top 16 as I'd intended.

MFTotal
201871219
20178917
20166915
201510515
201441014
Total364581

Protagonist gender is even more skewed towards female, which is a conscious choice (I just find women more interesting protagonists). Out of the 18 books which are fiction, there are two with a male protagonist and no female viewpoint characters (Legion and Scales), both of which do have female characters with agency and importance to the plot. Good Guys and The Iron Codex favor the male protags, but female protags are there. The nonfiction book (Broad Band), of course, is all about women. Twelve of the 19 top-rated books have only female protagonists (several have more than one), and two give more or less equal time to a male and a female protagonist (that's The Dragon Machine and, slightly less equally, Sorcerer to the Crown).

What Makes These Books the Best?

Reading as much as I do, I see a lot of books that don't attempt to go beyond the most well-worn genre conventions, characters, and plots - or, if they attempt it, don't succeed. The books on my top list are not stamped out of a mould. They take what's been done before as a starting point, not a target. They mix and blend genres, sometimes; they surprise, they innovate. Sometimes they even make me like genres I don't usually read, because they show me strongly-motivated, courageous, principled, individualized characters dealing with their compelling situations with determination and skill. Not all of them are without cliche elements or writing faults, but each of them shows strengths that lift them above the pack.

Sturgeon was right: 90% of everything is crap. But the quest for that other 10% takes me to some interesting places. I hope you'll join me on the trip.