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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