Saturday, 9 November 2019

Review: The Language of the Dragon

The Language of the Dragon The Language of the Dragon by Margaret Ball
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My abiding association with Margaret Ball is the books she "co-authored" with Anne McCaffrey back in the day, when McCaffrey was doing the "you write the book, I'll lend my name and help launch your career" deal with a number of young authors. (At least, I've always assumed that's how it worked.) She seemed to pick good writers, at least; except for a few very minor glitches, this book is impeccably written - something you couldn't always say of McCaffrey.

It's a spin-off from another series, with one of the minor characters being the main character of that series. Contemporary urban fantasy of a sort; magic exists, but is rare and not publicly known, and supernaturals are not everywhere as they are in most contemporary urban fantasy.

The specific magic here only works in a particular language, and has a cost for the spellcaster (headaches and possible brain injury). A notebook of words and phrases has made its way from a remote Central Asian location, the only place the language apparently is known, to America, and becomes a McGuffin in a struggle between a self-confessed slacker of a linguistics graduate and an unscrupulous tenured professor.

It's a well-told story, and entertaining. The main issue I have with it is that in a post-Me-Too world, the behaviour of Michael Ryan, the I-suppose-hero, comes off as creepy and intrusive; he hits on his young landlady (the slacker linguist) repeatedly, despite being almost as repeatedly rebuffed and even told that she hates him and he should leave immediately, and ends up basically forcing himself into her problems to help her solve them - something he's not a substantial amount of help with, for the most part.

There are a couple of what look like scanning glitches (capital I in place of lowercase l), which make me wonder if this recently-published ebook came from an older print edition, written in a time when that was just how male leads behaved. Regardless, it struck me as borderline at best. I'm also not a huge fan of slacker protagonists, as a class. Still, it managed to retain all four of the stars that I provisionally award any book that interests me enough to buy (adding or deducting as the content justifies). It's not a best-of-the-year book, but I would consider reading another in the same series or the related series.

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Review: Sidekicks

Sidekicks Sidekicks by Arthur Mayor
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It's difficult to find a good supers book. I was in the mood for one, and looked at and discarded more than 30 before settling on this one. I'm glad I picked it up; it was well done, with a bit of depth to the main character, and not too trope-ridden given the genre. The supers are not obvious knockoffs of Marvel or DC characters, and a bit of thought has gone into their powers.

It was also better edited than the average superhero novel, though sadly that's a very low bar to clear. An editor is credited; I'm sure she caught a lot (by the nature of editing, the audience never sees what the editor caught), but she missed a lot of omitted vocative commas (the "let's eat Grandma" error), some vocabulary issues (homonyms and mangled expressions), a couple of apostrophe glitches, and a few other assorted minor problems. It wouldn't be hard to clean up to a high standard.

The setting is a dark and gritty city filled with urban blight, corruption, and supervillain-organized crime, in which a group of technically illegal vigilantes known as the Guard try to protect the innocent as best they can. Led by the Batman-esque Raptor (who, unlike Batman, does have superpowers, but like Batman is grim and rigidly disciplined), they put their sidekicks/apprentices through a rigorous training regimen and impose strict rules on them, including keeping them isolated from the wider superhero community.

This is a problem when the senior members of the Guard are ambushed and killed, leaving the sidekicks out of their depth, not knowing how to access key resources or any assistance from other supers, and (thanks to the strict rules of their mentors) not really knowing, or in some cases liking, each other very well at all.

There's a strong theme throughout of the main character, who only has a low level of superpowers, having to choose between sensible safety and doing the right thing, and he goes back and forth between the two choices. His first-person narration is filled with self-deprecating banter inadequately covering over terror; he goes through some very traumatic events on his way to a rousing conclusion (that then has doubt cast on it as an effective setup for a sequel).

The other members of his team, apart from Butterfly, who can go into a robotlike mental state in which she can calculate odds and angles with extreme accuracy, don't get much development. Flare is mostly angry, Peregrine mostly a tool (though the rivalry between him and the narrator, Raven, does shift towards a shaky alliance in the course of the book), and Ballista mostly vulnerable; Butterfly gets an arc, in which she struggles with an issue similar to, but sufficiently different from, the safety versus heroism issue Raven faces. Her robotic mindset is a refuge from the fear and horror she's feeling, but it takes away from her humanity, so neither one is truly safe, and she needs both parts of herself in order to be an effective hero.

There's a sequel, which I will definitely read. It's a decent job of writing, with more emotional depth and subtlety than a lot of supers books, and I enjoyed it.

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Review: The Elementalist: Rise of Hara

The Elementalist: Rise of Hara The Elementalist: Rise of Hara by T. M. White
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

DNF at 42%. Between muddled worldbuilding, an annoying protagonist, and constant promises of action and adventure that still hadn't been fulfilled, this just wasn't for me.

There are three layers to the worldbuildng. Layer one is a fantasy secondary world, complete with continent map. The western not-quite-half of the continent has cultures with analogies to France or possibly Italy, and (judging by the names) to Ireland, but they're called something else. The eastern more-than-half has unaccountably (given its huge coastline) been enforcing a policy of isolation for years, now thawing, and (again, judging by the names) appears to have analogs of China and the Middle East. I'm never a big fan of basing fantasy cultures on real cultures, but I understand why people do it. The geography and history are, of course, not those of our world or anything close to it.

Somehow (again), the western part has had the industrial revolution and is all the way up to dieselpunk. This is where the second layer comes in.

The second layer of worldbuilding, at odds with the first, is set dressing that comes straight out of the 1920s or 1930s US, complete with fedoras, trench coats, and jazz. Early on, I noted a car stopped at a red light as challenging my suspension of disbelief (since that's a very arbitrary signal); I didn't know the half of it yet. This secondary world with a completely different history is fully furnished in a job lot of scenery and props straight out of the Jazz Age. It's like you were filming a fantasy epic and just decided to use the sound stage left over from The Great Gatsby.

On top of that is the third layer, which is the speech and attitudes of the characters. These are from contemporary USA, with no visible attempt to go for the 1920s or 30s as anything more than furniture. A nurse is more like a modern nurse practitioner, the status of women seems approximately as it is today, there are college protests against hate crimes and racism towards immigrants, and numerous small attitudes and turns of speech put us firmly in the early 21st century.

I was going to ding the book half a star for muddled worldbuilding, but it wasn't chock full of the usual sloppy mechanical errors, and there kept being promises (in the situation, and in what the protagonist was being trained for) that it would be a thrilling adventure later on, so I kept reading.

Ah, the protagonist. My personal favourite kind of protagonist is one who is strongly motivated by a personal commitment to do the right thing, and will persevere through any challenge, displaying competence and sound judgement and winning allies to her cause (because I do prefer female protagonists). Preferably, she's someone who isn't the most talented or the most gifted (and definitely not fated or prophesied as the Chosen One); she's an underdog, making up with strength of character for being ill-equipped to meet the scale of challenge she's presented with.

Voi, the protagonist of this book, is pretty much the exact opposite of all of this, except that she is a young woman. She constantly huffs, pouts, broods and sulks; she resists her training; she resists being recruited to the cause (probably quite rightly, but it makes her an unpromising protagonist); she has no self-discipline to go with her awesome powers of awesomeness that are better than anyone else in the history of talent. When she does make a decision, it's almost always an ill-judged one. I disliked her as a person and found her constantly annoying as a protagonist. Finally, when she had dangerous sex with a complete stranger because her powers were (for some reason) making her horny, I was done. Even though the many promises of action and adventure were finally (nearly halfway into the book) looking like they might start to pay off, that was just one too many negatives for me.

This book is very likely to the taste of quite a number of people, but I am not a part of that number, I'm afraid.

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Tuesday, 22 October 2019

Review: The Spirit Siphon

The Spirit Siphon The Spirit Siphon by Ben S. Dobson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'm enjoying this series, though I still haven't found any of the subsequent books as good as the first one. This one, in particular, seems a little short on tension; I'm not sure why, because the situation (trying not to start a war while tracking down an old adversary) has plenty of tension built in. Perhaps it's that the characters never seem to make much progress on anything. They find things out, the situation complicates, they even confront the adversary, but they don't really succeed at much, and while not succeeding complicates their lives a bit, I didn't get the sense of a powerful downward spiral (followed by last-minute triumph against the odds) that an action-oriented book like this needs.

It feels very much like a transitional book, inserted to move the characters from one situation to another, rather than being a complete adventure in itself.

The half-orc character's zest for life is still on display, but not as much (and that's one of the best aspects of the series, for me). Nor is her human partner's cleverness and ability to defeat mages by getting inside their heads.

All in all, not the best entry in what is still an enjoyable series.

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Review: The Glass Magician

The Glass Magician The Glass Magician by Caroline Stevermer
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is an experienced author, and it shows in the smooth and assured writing. Unlike most period pieces, it isn't full of obvious anachronisms (with an exception I'll mention later) or regrettable vocabulary glitches. However, the plot, the characters, and especially the setting all fell a bit short of excellence for me.

There's nothing really wrong with the plot. It's more or less mystery with a chance of romance, though there's a dash of coming-of-age in there as well. The protagonist must deal with the discovery that she isn't who she thought she was, that her family situation is not as she's been told, and that her mentor isn't who she thought he was either. Meanwhile, she's prevented from working as a stage magician, which brings a brief threat of economic difficulties, quickly averted. She ends up the house guest of a man who both attracts and annoys her, caught up in the murder of a rival magician, and under threat from what amounts to a force of nature because of her newly discovered identity.

It's probably a bit too much for a book this length, and some of the elements don't really get the development they need. The denouement to the mystery is a painfully awkward attempt at a villain reveal which, rather against the odds given how badly it's done, succeeds in flushing out the murderer. The pursued-by-manticores plot at least has a level of tension that's largely missing elsewhere. There are a few conflicts ("I must clear my mentor's name, but doing so risks my life") set up by the interweaving plots. It's not outstanding, but it will do.

The characters are all right. There's nothing really wrong with them either. They're not complete cardboard cutouts or straight out of central casting, not quite. But they don't have an uncommon amount of individuality or depth either. You can describe each of them in a phrase (the rich young man, the rich young man's dilettante sister, the mentor, the monster hunter, the Romany magic shop proprietor, the landlady) and there's not a lot to add to that brief capsule description. The protagonist and viewpoint character has the most to her, of course, and she does develop and change in the course of the story.

There were a couple of things about the setting that tripped me up and challenged my suspension of disbelief. We're in an alternate 1905, similar to our own 1905 in many ways (including some prominent people), but different in many other ways. Firstly, as well as baseline humans ("Solitaires") there are shifters ("Traders") and people who have some kind of nature affinity that's never really made completely clear ("Sylvestri"). The three can interbreed. In order to shift forms, you have to be a Trader on both sides of your family, but if Traders intermarry too much they produce manticores, monsters that can shift into apparent human form in order to stalk young Traders who are not yet in full control of their shifts and eat their magic, killing them in the process.

For some reason that is never made clear, pretty much everyone who is prominent and successful is a Trader, and vice versa. The lack of an explanation for this was one of the things that tripped me up. I couldn't figure out a history in which the ability to turn into an animal (and the loss of human thought and memory beginning around the age of 70) translated automatically into becoming rich and powerful. Several of the actual historical figures mentioned are Traders, and the impression one gets is that nobody can just rise to prominence on their talents (as some of those people did in our reality); they have to be a Trader. Why?

Most Native Americans are Sylvestri, and they have a treaty with the other Sylvestri that has kept the centre of the North American continent theirs, while the coasts are apparently colonised - both seem to be part of the United States, though that isn't said explicitly - and a railway runs between the two. Again, this seems unlikely; it doesn't play a big role in the plot, except that the Sylvestri ambassador is a minor character. (He is stationed in New York. Is New York the capital, then? Ambassadors are posted to capitals, consuls are posted to non-capitals.) And yet the Gilded Age is in full swing on the Eastern seaboard, unsupported by the resources of the central US. (The wealthy in the real Gilded Age often had extensive holdings in those central states.)

It's hard to resist the idea that Native American sovereignty over a large portion of their land is simply something the author put in because she thought it should be that way, especially given other indications. There are black people in this alternate world, but they have a much higher status than was the case in our 1905 (40 years after the Civil War, let's not forget); a black woman is a prominent lawyer, and two other black women form two-thirds of the influential Board of Trade, who rule on certain important Trader matters. (The status of women seems a little higher, too.) Race is something that's constantly highlighted; the viewpoint character is a white woman, yet every person she meets, most of whom are white, is described by their race as well as whether they're Solitaire, Trader, or Sylvestri (which she generally seems to be able to tell as easily as their ethnicity). I'm not a conservative person and am mostly sympathetic to liberal viewpoints, but this does read to me like conspicuous 21st-century white liberalism projected intrusively onto an earlier age.

Overall, then, I found this book fell short of being fully satisfying. The plot, while servicable, lacked the momentum it could have had, and the mystery resolution was painfully bad; the characters stuck mostly to type; and there were, for me, big holes in the worldbuilding that distracted me from the story.

I received a copy via Netgalley for purposes of review.

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Review: Max and the Multiverse

Max and the Multiverse Max and the Multiverse by Zachry Wheeler
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Max is basically the epitome of why I hesitate to read books with male protagonists these days. He is an arrogant, ignorant, aimless slacker, completely oblivious to how his life is made easy for him by the work of people he despises (including his parents, whose role in the story consists entirely of their absence). The narrative voice manages to add more ignorance (of the complex role of religion in the development of society and technology; of the religious origin of names like "Veronica" - the AI in the non-religious utopia; of how you need a whole society, not just an intellectual elite, for anything to function), and contempt, notably for fat people, "stupid" people, and religious people - who are equated with stupid people. The descriptions of the space lesbians having amorous interludes are creepily enthusiastic. It's no wonder that he several times depicts people in service professions being rude to the protagonist because of how annoyingly ignorant and boorish he is; most of us have not had that experience, but I wouldn't be surprised if the author had.

Though most (not all) of the sentences are punctuated correctly, if one ignores the interrobangs, far too many of them have words accidentally left out; there is a profusion of dangling modifiers; and the author affects a high-flown vocabulary and several times stumbles over it. "Don", for example, means "put on clothing" (it was originally "do on"); it does not mean to wear clothing. It's used incorrectly four times and, oddly, correctly once. "Visage" means face, not sight. The prose has an unfortunate tendency in a purplish direction, overall, which eventually becomes wearing.

Part of the schtick, which is important early on but loses all relevance later, is that Max shifts universes when he falls asleep. But, as often happens in alternate-world novels, the most arbitrary things about his life, the things that are most likely to change - his very existence, his address, his cat, the identity of his girlfriend, his parents happening to be absent - are exactly the things that remain constant. Events even flow from universe to universe, so he breaks up with his girlfriend in one universe and in the next universe that was also something that happened, even though so much else has changed.

In the end, the multiverse shifting has absolutely no relevance to the plot whatsoever, except that it enables Max to get into space (in an advanced utopian version of the world that changed completely 20,000 years earlier and yet still somehow has Max in it). Space in an alternate universe is astonishingly like contemporary America, but with funnier-looking people and the usual whiz-bang technological furniture space adventures tend to share. It's lacking in imagination; it may be intended as part of the satire, but satire needs to be a bit more... satirical than this.

I promised myself that if the mediocre white guy ended up sleeping with the space lesbians essentially because he was the mediocre white guy, I would ding it another star, but happily that didn't happen. I should probably ding it half a star for the fact that he saved the day in the crucial moment when the otherwise competent women were helpless, and did so by pretending he was sleeping with the space lesbians and making them act like brainless bimbos. So it's two and a half stars, rounded up to three. But I will definitely not be reading another book in the series or another book by this author.

The cat was good, though.

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Review: One Blood

One Blood One Blood by Sabrina Chase
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read the first of the series some years ago, but there was enough reminder/backstory stuff to catch me up without having to refresh myself.

I remember the first book as being very well edited; this one has a few minor glitches, mostly apostrophes and commas, but for the most part it's smooth and even, and I could relax into it without being constantly irritated by the copy editing.

It's an enjoyable ensemble-cast adventure. The "it's us humans together against the alien Other" premise rings a little old-fashioned to me, but it's far from the worst take I've seen on it, and there are plenty of hints that the Earth-humans, at least, have a slightly more sophisticated take on war than that. The military background of several of the characters came across to me as convincing (I have not served in the military, though, so take that for what it's worth). There's lots of winning hearts and minds and clever problem-solving, as well as a smaller amount of blowing stuff up, which works for me as a balance.

The characters, including the non-Earth-human ones, are easily distinguishable, and the two main characters in particular, the military leader and the suddenly-superpowered geek, have some depth and heft to them. I believed and enjoyed their strong personal relationship, too.

Extra points for a cat, as always.

It's good enough that I'll consider adding it to my Best of the Year, though not so good that it's going on that list automatically. Definitely a strong four stars, but it lacks that extra depth or something outstanding that would take it to five.

I'll read the third in the trilogy, though, for sure.

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Sunday, 29 September 2019

Review: Purrfect Magic

Purrfect Magic Purrfect Magic by Samantha Coville
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Light and cheerful (considering the multiple messy deaths in it), this NA magic academy story rides the popular wave begun by Harry Potter. The first-person protagonist starts out as an overprivileged brat, but quickly gains a sense of responsibility as the school comes under threat.

The romance feels more middle-school than post-high-school, and the numbers don't always add up (somehow, 25 people are divided into pairs, for example, with nobody apparently left over). The villain's inside person was pretty predictable, partly because so few characters are developed at all, or even named; and almost every significant person has the cliched green (or rather "emerald") eyes.

The pre-release copy I got from Netgalley has all the usual kinds of errors, though not in too great profusion, and a good copy editor could have it nice and clean for publication without too much trouble.

The kittens who are also ancient demons were fun, and the defend-the-school plot moves along briskly, but it never threatens to rise above the general run of its genre, as I'd hoped it might. A solid three stars, entertaining but unspectacular.

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Review: Witches Protection Program

Witches Protection Program Witches Protection Program by Michael Okon
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Logging on to Goodreads to review this, I was presented with a quote by Tracy Chevalier: "I have consistently loved books that I read when sick in bed."

My experience differs. This book, for example.

It's essentially an average action movie in book form. The plot is thoroughly expected, and the characters never attain any depth beyond their familiar types. What worldbuilding there is is tissue-paper thin. It seems to be trying to be Men in Black, but it doesn't even quite pull off being Men in Black II.

If it had been played for comedy throughout, elements like the mind-controlling face cream and the inexplicably steampunk weapons might have worked, but as it is they're simply absurd.

There's nothing really wrong with it, as such - apart from the occasional mid-scene shift in point of view, which is generally considered a rookie error - but it's so thoroughly mediocre that the only rating I can give is three stars.

I received a copy via Netgalley for review.

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Review: The Books of Conjury: The Complete Trilogy

The Books of Conjury: The Complete Trilogy The Books of Conjury: The Complete Trilogy by Kevan Dale
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

At a high level, this generally worked for me as a story, with exceptions that I'll talk about below. At the level of detailed execution, though, it has a lot of room for improvement, hence my three-star rating.

It also contained a lot more mayhem and death of innocents than I usually prefer, though it wasn't like I didn't know that going in.

I picked it up (on a BookBub promotion) in part because a couple of the Amazon reviewers specifically described it as "well edited". I'm afraid they were mistaken. Most (though not all) of the commas and apostrophes are in the right places, true, which puts it ahead of a lot of books, but it's rife with hyphens where no hyphen should be, words missed out of sentences, sentences mangled in revision, verbs not agreeing with their subjects, fumbled idioms, vocabulary errors (like confusions between straight and strait, taught and taut, loathe and loath, wretch and retch, belied and betrayed, synched and cinched, troupe and troop, gate and gait, internment and interment), and a long parade of dangling modifiers. I marked 220 issues (including some that weren't copy editing issues, which I'll discuss below), and I didn't mark every one. Even considering that this is three books in one, that's still on the high end for books I review, which is why I've put it on my "seriously needs editing" shelf.

Apart from the copy editing, there were issues with anachronisms, continuity, and things I just didn't believe. There's a suspicious number of large windows for the glass technology of 1736-37, which is when the book is set; there's also a very minor female character called Aubrey, which was a name not used for girls until the 1970s (or for boys in the 18th century, for that matter), and a mention of adrenaline (discovered in the 1890s).

Other problems of background include a mention of a group of lords, "one a member of Parliament, no less". All British lords, properly so called, are members of the House of Lords, and none can be members of the House of Commons, so this is nonsense.

Early on, a woman supposedly freshly arrived from England appears to recognise hemlock trees, which are North American natives. This same woman (the viewpoint character and protagonist) has nothing remotely English about her; both she and her master, also supposedly from London, use the very American phrasing "off of" repeatedly, for example. I was never convinced of her Englishness in any way (and it would have worked just as well for the story if she'd arrived from some other American colony).

There are a few minor continuity problems, but the big one is that two characters set off on a dangerous journey to get a particular magical substance that is locked up in a specific place. However, by the time their journey ends, their purpose in making the journey has changed to enacting the magical ritual for which the substance is needed, and (without having visited the place one of them specifically said it was in) they appear to have had the substance with them all along.

That same journey also gave me some of the biggest examples of things I just didn't believe: a large man in his early 80s able to make it through a gruelling physical trial, and a woman in her late teens able to haul him around physically, including onto a horse. Given that there's magic, and it can do a very wide range of convenient things, they could have used spells to give themselves more strength and endurance (at the risk of injury or exhaustion later on), but they didn't.

There's also the idea that, along with everything else she was studying, plus all the work she did, Kate managed to learn German, a notoriously difficult language, well enough to read a random passage, in less than a year (along with, presumably, a number of other languages; the spells are mostly in languages other than English, and are quoted in full a bit more often than necessary). And, among all the death, that certain characters made their way through a highly dangerous area and didn't die. (A few of them had magical protection, but the soldiers and others with them didn't.)

And, of course, there's the staggering coincidence at the beginning, when someone who should have died somehow doesn't, and ends up meeting exactly the person who can help her, and who she can help, because without this meeting there is no story. It's a bit too obvious a hand of fate/God/the author.

So, numerous issues. The heart of the story is sound, though, and with better editing; more attention to detail, time period, and continuity; and a bit of reworking of the less believable parts, this could be a strong four stars.

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Monday, 26 August 2019

Review: Buzz Kill: A Novel

Buzz Kill: A Novel Buzz Kill: A Novel by David Sosnowski
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was a difficult one to rate, and I finally went with my gut; the three-star rating partly reflects the fact that it was such a downer, which is not to my taste. (The title turned out to be accurate in a couple of ways that took me unpleasantly by surprise, though it's not like I wasn't warned at all; I just kept hoping it would turn out better than it was threatening to.)

I've read a few books now in the genre you might call "contemporary science fiction," as spawned by William Gibson of All Tomorrow's Parties, and they tend to have three flaws.

First, they're world-weary and cynical. This book is definitely those things, though it is at least witty about it.

Second, they tend to feature alienated losers wandering through a series of events without much in the way of goals, and therefore without much plot. For a long time - until about 45% - and with the "losers" part in brackets, I thought this book checked that box off as well, but the pair of protagonists do finally get a goal, or a pair of aligned goals. It is very much choked with exposition and high-flown prose, though, with long infodumps (either via a character or directly from the narrator) about artificial intelligence and various other topics. The explanations are plot-relevant, but there are an awful lot of them. I gained the impression that the author/narrator was a bit in love with the sound of his own voice.

The third flaw that many contemporary SF books share is the flaw that (according to Sturgeon) 90% of everything shares: they're crap, in the sense that the author has a poor grasp on the basic tools of writing like punctuation, sentence structure, and vocabulary, not to mention plot, characterisation and setting. This book has, I think, had extensive copy editing to remove most (though, in the review copy I got from Netgalley, not quite all) signs of those problems, and reads as better written than average. That would normally have kept it at four stars, but sustained cynicism and a tragic ending were not what I was hoping for, and when you spend almost the first half of the book waffling around with backstory and the characters feeling and thinking and experiencing a lot but doing very little, I will ding you for it.

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Review: The Dragon's Banker

The Dragon's Banker The Dragon's Banker by Scott Warren
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The author of this book set out to do something difficult - tell an interesting story about a merchant banker in a fantasy setting - and, in my view, achieved it. I kept wanting to get back to reading it, which is an excellent sign. It helps that the banker in question is atypically honest, and, despite his frequent protestations, generous to others.

It's a kind of riches-to-rags-to-riches story, though the rags are relative rather than absolute. For a long time, I was thinking it was going a bit too easily; the protagonist kept succeeding in whatever he attempted, and had a clever plan that looked as if it was going to come off without a hitch. I was still interested enough to keep reading, but I did wonder if there was going to be some more tension and conflict and challenge coming - and then there was plenty, and the plot took a series of twists, and overall I was very satisfied with the outcome.

I will mention a brief jarring moment, in which the protagonist has a drunken one-night stand with a junior employee. It felt out of place with the rest of the book.

I'll also mention that in the review copy supplied to me by Netgalley, it's obvious that the author is reaching well beyond his vocabulary, and often using words in senses that are either highly unusual or flat-out wrong.

The bonus story, while in dire need of basic copy editing (again, in the version I had; the published version may well be a lot better), I found genuinely amusing. It's the story of a fated Chosen One, the focus of dozens of mutually contradictory prophecies, who refuses the call so hard that he actually ends up succeeding in a completely unexpected way. It's not just tropes and silly names, but clever and well plotted, which I believe a comic story needs to be.

Definitely recommended, though I would like to see the author bring his knowledge of the basics of vocabulary and punctuation up closer to the level of his excellent plotting.

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Review: The Lawrence Watt-Evans Fantasy Megapack

The Lawrence Watt-Evans Fantasy Megapack The Lawrence Watt-Evans Fantasy Megapack by Lawrence Watt-Evans
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Some of the stories are a bit insubstantial, and some read more like scenes from novels than short stories (there is a difference, which writers who are mainly novelists don't always appreciate). And there is a bit more casual death and mayhem in a few of the early ones than I was looking for. But on the whole, amusing and entertaining.

The copy editing needs another run-through (minor scruffiness, nothing really big; OCR errors, missing minor words and the occasional dropped quotation mark, mainly) and the formatting and paragraph breaks are occasionally out, but it's not enough to be a dealbreaker for me.

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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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