Saturday, 6 March 2021

Review: Miss Bennet’s Dragon

Miss Bennet’s Dragon Miss Bennet’s Dragon by M. Verant
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This isn't just a rehash of Austen; it's definitely an AU fanfic, though a good one. There are plenty of the usual anachronisms and Americanisms that you almost always get when 21st-century Americans set books in 19th-century Britain, but overall it's a capable job.

While it bills itself as a "retelling," what the author has really done is stripped Pride and Prejudice back to the skeleton - situations, events, relationships, character names, and in some cases, but definitely not in others, character personalities - and built something else on top of it, something that's quite a different story, especially towards the end.

Not only because this England has dragon-like creatures (and flourishing remnants of pre-Christian Britain; I detected some hints of anti-Christian bias in a few other aspects of the story, too). The original is about relationships and the society that constrains them and warps the people within it. This is much more of a fantasy adventure story, and drops those central concerns of Austen much more into the background. The more tediously silly characters (Mr Collins, Mrs Bennet, and Lady Catherine) don't get to talk nearly as much; their silliness is established more by telling than showing, because it's not the author's focus.

The story is narrated in first person by Lizzie, not by Austen's wry and sometimes cruel narrator. This gives it more immediacy, and also softens the portrayal of the Bennet family.

Her mother is still silly, though not as tragically so. Her father is inept, but her love for him covers the worst of his failings. Jane is still sweet; there's not much more to Jane, in the original or this version, than that, though here the consequences she suffers from events are much more serious. Kitty is still... rather superfluous and underdeveloped as a character.

Mary is, perhaps, the most transformed from the original. No longer a prosy, conventionally pious pseudo-intellectual who plays the piano adequately, she is deeply unconventional, the opposite of pious, highly intelligent, a skilled composer, and socially aware not so much beyond her years as beyond her year. It's true that Mary Wollstonecraft, who lived before the book is set, did articulate at least some of the ideas that Mary expresses here - though not in these terms, and there doesn't seem to be any reference to her writings or, indeed, any other writings available at the time. Mary is just a straight-up anachronism, an essentially early-21st-century young woman plopped into the early 19th. I have to say, I like this version of Mary more than the original (and it's clear that the author likes her a lot more than Austen liked the original, too), but there's no getting away from the fact that, of all the anachronisms, large and small, that creep into the book, Mary is the largest.

Lydia is also transformed, from a thoughtless child to a complete sociopath; Wickham goes from a rogue and a rake to a traitor. There's a lot more overt engagement with the events of the time, both the Napoleonic Wars and the debate over slavery (not yet outlawed in British possessions overseas, though it was illegal in Britain itself by this time). In Austen generally, these things are in the background, referenced subtly but never the focus; here, they are out in the open, and the war in particular comes to the characters and involves them whether they want it to or not.

Mr Darcy is pretty much the original, even in the parts that depart from the original plot and introduce entirely new events and situations. Lizzie is maybe just one step too special, but she is a fantasy heroine, after all. I appreciated the inversion of a trope, where (view spoiler). I also enjoyed the moment where (view spoiler)

I haven't read the book version of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, but I have read the graphic novel, and it consisted mostly of large chunks of original Austen prose interspersed with nonsensical martial arts scenes. This is a much subtler, and to me more successful, rewriting. If you're looking for faithfulness to Austen, or even a focus on what she focused on, this is not it. On the other hand, if you're looking for Austen-inspired adventure fantasy that's well told, and don't mind (or won't notice) a few 21st-century intrusions, this definitely is it, and I recommend it to you.

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Thursday, 4 March 2021

Review: Unwritten

Unwritten Unwritten by Alicia J. Novo
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A solid YA portal fantasy that builds on the idea of book characters having their own lives outside the pages (similarly to Jasper Fforde or a few other authors).

While it occasionally strays into cliche (for example, in the final villain confrontation), at least nobody has green eyes. The worldbuilding is original, though it provides more questions than answers sometimes, and (as you perhaps might expect from a world based on books) the magic and technology appear to be able to do whatever is plot-convenient. The world ended up, for me, feeling a bit like a movie set that's only finished where the camera is pointing, and would be revealed as just bits of wood and canvas if you went round the back. But that's a complaint I often have; truly immersive worldbuilding is hard to do, especially if you're attempting something original, and I'd rather someone attempted originality and ended up slightly less than acing it than that they built the whole thing out of prefabricated parts.

The main character starts out as the usual uniquely special, socially outcast young woman with missing or abusive parents who's angry and impulsive and can't control her powers; but she's not a whiner, she doesn't instantly slobber over the love interest, and she does have a character arc that involves her exercising some agency and having some personal growth. So, better than average.

The secondary characters are perhaps slightly too numerous, and several of them (maybe as a result) are underdeveloped, but at least they don't help the MC for no reason. There are a number of useful minor antagonists - she's not one of those heroines who everyone inexplicably loves and goes out of their way to assist - and, while a bit of realistic dystopianism makes its way into the setting, it's not a political screed. I spotted the main villain slightly ahead of the reveal, but only slightly. (view spoiler)

There's a mystery plot (decoding a message) which helps to keep things moving and provides interim goals, and it's handled with variety, not just the same kind of solution over and over.

Overall, then, pretty solid, though with a way to go before it's truly excellent. There are some cliche elements, the worldbuilding is not always the clearest, some of the minor characters I found forgettable and hard to distinguish, and (in the pre-publication version I had from Netgalley), it suffers from some not-quite-right idioms and vocabulary choices. It definitely shows potential, though, and I found it above average for the genre.

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Thursday, 25 February 2021

Review: The Dragon Stone Conspiracy: A Strowlers Novel

The Dragon Stone Conspiracy: A Strowlers Novel The Dragon Stone Conspiracy: A Strowlers Novel by Amanda Cherry
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

If you follow my reviews, you probably know that protagonist agency is something I always look for in a book. In this book, I found hardly any.

For at least 80% of it, the main character makes no decisions except to do what people tell her and go where they send her; she usually has only one viable option, like the worst ever railroaded RPG. She faces no opposition, challenge, or test until about 85% of the way in; people keep transporting her places and giving her what she needs. She's passive, and what's more, the prologue reveals - before we even meet her - that she's a dupe and a pawn.

She does eventually face one challenge, but the gifts she's been showered with make the outcome a foregone conclusion, and there's little tension. She also does something else effective and important to the plot in the same scene, but completely by accident and without ever understanding (and without the author ever making clear, at least to me) why it happened.

This is a problem. Also a problem for me, in the pre-publication version I reviewed from Netgalley, is the fact that the author doesn't have a firm grip on capitalization or hyphenation, has a smaller vocabulary than she thinks she does, and commits several anachronisms (not to mention comma splices, a dangling modifier, and a mid-scene point-of-view switch). The state of the manuscript is such that it will take an excellent copy editor to bring it up to standard.

The setting is an open shared world, based on a rather obscure TV series from a couple of years ago which seems to only have released a few episodes and received little popular or critical acclaim. I haven't seen it, but the main character of this book apparently appears in several episodes of the series; this is by way of a prequel. The setting seems, judging by the book, to be a bland and generic urban fantasy world. There may be more to the character in the show, but the character in the book didn't have a lot of depth or development, mainly because she hardly ever made any decisions or faced any problems.

I have to say, I was expecting a lot more from the promising premise of "young woman fights Nazis with magic". Nothing is done particularly well, and a number of things are done badly, hence two stars.

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Monday, 22 February 2021

Review: The Qubit Zirconium: A KeyForge Novel

The Qubit Zirconium: A KeyForge Novel The Qubit Zirconium: A KeyForge Novel by M. Darusha Wehm
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A mystery set in the wacky world of a CCG, featuring private detectives with a difference. Actually, a lot of differences.

The PIs - a female alien who floats, and a nattily-dressed nonbinary cyborg - are not even a little bit noir; they don't get beaten up while pursuing their investigation, they're rigidly ethical in their methods, and they're not desperate for money. In fact, they spend quite a bit of their own money on behalf of a client who they know can't reimburse them, at first because they're bored and want a mystery to solve and someone they vaguely know appears to be in trouble, and later because they come to believe that the world is at risk.

For the first third - while the stakes were low - I wasn't engaged. It's clear that the PIs are fond of each other, even though they have a mild mutual irritation/odd couple thing going because Wibble, the floater, is a thrill-seeking extraverted optimist and Pplimz is very buttoned-down. But their banter is in a formal cadence, and there's not a lot of emotional drive or action. The investigation is a slow series of try-fail cycles which show off the setting, but the details are mostly decorative rather than functional. Neither the main characters nor the various secondary characters they encounter are shown to us particularly deeply, and none of them became interesting to me; they're odd, sure, but there's such a relentless tone of respecting difference (which, certainly, is a good thing in itself) that their oddity becomes flattened and doesn't lead to much conflict. We're told that this is a world in which there's a lot of danger and in which many factions are battling; we're shown a comfortable, fairly safe world in which nothing really bad actually happens.

This continues to be the case throughout the book, but at least things pick up a bit when the fate of the world seems to be at stake (view spoiler). There's no more clarity, and not much more danger, but there is at least a plot question to drive things forward. (view spoiler)

My previous experience with Darusha Wehm's books is that they do tend to be slow-moving and lacking in action, tension, and strong emotion, and this is not an exception, despite the opportunities offered by the setting. There are definitely people who will enjoy following the likeable protagonists through the interesting setting as they gradually unpick the puzzle, but for me it didn't have enough zing to it.

Disclaimers: I know Darusha Wehm slightly, as we're both members of the Codex writers' forum and of SpecFicNZ. I received a pre-publication copy for review via Netgalley.

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Wednesday, 17 February 2021

Review: Mercurial

Mercurial Mercurial by Naomi Hughes
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

On the face of it, this is not a book I should enjoy.

The setting is dystopian, and usually I avoid that genre diligently. It contains torture and cruelty. But the blurb, and the opening, made a pretty strong promise that this would give me a redemptive arc rather than a pointless grimdark tragedy, so I pushed on through the two or three initial chapters of horror until it started getting hopeful.

Not that things then became easy - not at all. The author has done a masterful job of keeping tension, setting up seemingly insoluble dilemmas, and then resolving them in a way that's both surprising and inevitable. It's a book of driven, damaged people struggling in a cruel world, and yet somehow finding their way to a better one through love, devotion, self-sacrifice and faith.

Initially, the metal-based magic reminded me of Sanderson's Mistborn books, but it's quite a different approach. The worldbuilding was not the strongest aspect; the way the magical people worked (and a few incidental moments, like the bone viper, which functioned a lot better as a metaphor than it did as a real animal) stretched my suspension of disbelief, sometimes to breaking. But the strong characters and plot made up for it for me.

I received a pre-publication copy via Netgalley for review. Apart from consistently getting "lay" and "lie" the wrong way round, and a few other verb glitches, which I hope will be fixed by publication, it was well edited, considerably above the usual standard.

Recommended.

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Thursday, 11 February 2021

Review: Roger Zelazny

Roger Zelazny Roger Zelazny by F. Brett Cox
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is by an academic, so of course it reexamines the received wisdom about its subject and says, "Wait on, there's more to it than that."

Which, in this case, is no bad thing. Nor is it written in a high academic style; it should be easily accessible to anyone who enjoys Zelazny's fiction.

I myself am a huge Zelazny fan; I have read all but one of his novels (Bridge of Ashes being the exception), and a number of the short stories in one collection or another, and I own most of them in the form of battered second-hand paperbacks, each of which I've read several times, and some a lot more often. So I was pleased to see that the author of this book is questioning the idea that Zelazny failed to live up to his early promise and became an excessively "commercial" writer, pushing out books quickly to make a living and leaving them with inadequate depth and development.

It's not that there's no truth to that at all, of course, but what some critics saw as the author not doing enough work the author himself apparently saw as trusting the reader to do that work; a phrase in his letters about making up his mind to stop after he's shown a thing to the reader and not go on piling up the verbiage is quoted several times. Personally, I've always enjoyed his lean prose, the way he can evoke a person or a place with a couple of memorable lines and then move on with the story, the way he never wrote a really long book, and yet his best books seem epic in scope.

Could he (as Joanna Russ complained) have spent more time writing "the story inside the story"? Certainly he could, but that wasn't necessarily what he was setting out to do, or what his readers wanted of him.

This book includes a fascinating interview, in which Zelazny talks about how he experimented in every book, usually working on something he saw as a weakness, and how he always tried to put in enough of what he knew he could do well that if it turned out that his experimental part didn't work, the book as a whole still had a good chance of working. I think that's why, to me, his books always seem fresh and adventurous, boldly exploring premises that most writers wouldn't be capable of coming up with, let alone doing justice to. Even with Dilvish the Damned, the most stereotypically sword-and-sorcery of his series, which he admitted he kept around to have something easy to work on, he wasn't just trudging through the tropes and making it out of box mix; there's a sense of wonder even in those stories.

So this book got me thinking about that. It also brought to my attention that a lot of Zelazny's main characters, especially early on, are violent revolutionaries/terrorists, something I hadn't been conscious of. He also began writing women who had arcs and protagonism towards the end of his career (a major valid complaint about his early work is that the women are more or less furniture, not that many other male authors of the time were doing any better), which I had to have pointed out to me; I'd got used to thinking that he couldn't write women with any agency.

Something I was watching for, but didn't see, was a discussion of how so many of his characters have an absent father figure or are otherwise obsessed with their fathers (like Tak in Lord of Light). There's a brief mention of how important fathers often are in the stories, but it doesn't draw out that these are often missing fathers, the ultimate example being the main character in Doorways in the Sand: not only is he an orphan, but his substitute father figure (his uncle) is also absent for most of the book, and the uncle's return is an important turning point. See also Corwin, Merlin, and the young man in Roadmarks, to give a non-exhaustive list. Still, it's a relatively brief book, and it can't drill down into every theme of Zelazny's.

What it did do, for me, was give an interesting chronological discussion of Zelazny's life (briefly) and work (in some depth); show me some trends and developments I'd missed, partly through reading the books in no particular order; get me thinking about my own writing and what I want it to be; and, of course, make me want to re-read some Zelazny.

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Review: Spell of Fate

Spell of Fate Spell of Fate by Mayer Alan Brenner
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I recently read a book on Roger Zelazny that talked about how he deliberately turned away from overwriting, and how some people thought he sacrificed depth in his stories as a result. This book has, if anything, the opposite problem; it's trying to be deep and complex, and the author doesn't quite pull it off, so it ends up murky and slow-moving instead.

The main problem with this (and the series generally) is that there are too many characters, and too many plot threads, and the proportion of reflection to action is too high, especially for sword-and-sorcery. It's entertaining enough that I keep reading, but it's never going to make it to my Best of the Year.

Also, it needed a bit more editing even before it was scanned. Though there don't appear to be a lot of obvious scan errors, so that's something.

It does finally get to action by the end, and then stops before the resolution, which presumably we will get in the last volume. I'll wait until that volume drops in price, as I did with the other three; $7.99 USD is too much for me to pay for a fairly entertaining book with significant, though not fatal, flaws.

Hangs onto its fourth star by its fingernails, since I do enjoy the characters (even though there are too many) and the story (even though I have to beat the thickets for it).

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