Monday, 22 November 2021

Review: The Prince of Secrets

The Prince of Secrets The Prince of Secrets by A.J. Lancaster
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoyed the first in this series, though I found the plot sometimes predictable. This second book is better, both in general and in the sense that I spent almost the entire book wondering how the various plot issues were going to be resolved, and got that satisfying surprising-but-inevitable feeling when they were.

The romantic couple (a pragmatic, competent woman and a caring, sensitive man) were pretty much my ideal romantic couple, the adventure aspect of the plot was well-paced and suspenseful, the eccentric family was hilarious at times, there were multiple levels of challenge to face (from the minutiae of running an understaffed, underfunded ancient manor house up to deadly fae court politics), and all the parts of the plot fitted together well.

I normally avoid princes, princesses, lords and ladies in my fiction these days, but because they were so down-to-earth and facing everyday challenges as well, I don't mind these ones.

In general, a good time, and I look forward to reading the sequel.

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Review: Earthshine

Earthshine Earthshine by Graham Bower
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I almost gave up on this at 25%, because the copy editing needs a lot of work, and it looked like it was going to be otherwise mediocre. I gave it a second chance, though, and it wasn't nearly as bad as I'd thought it might be; it successfully avoided the white-saviour and magical-native tropes, at least, and told a decent story that had some original elements with some reasonably engaging characters. Several of the characters didn't get much development, though, notably the protagonist's flatmate and the Scandinavian tech millionaire. The latter looked like he was going to be important, but in the end mostly acted as a facilitator of the plot for the other characters. The minor antagonist Instagram influencer couple were amusingly well drawn.

Cosmic/spiritual books can often come off pretentious and hokey, but this one keeps the mysticism to a plot-relevant level.

I normally don't talk in detail about the copy editing in books I get for review via Netgalley, since if they're pre-publication there's often another round of editing yet to come. This one, though, is already published, so I'll mention the fact that it contains a lot of dialog that is mispunctuated in pretty much every way it's possible to mispunctuate dialog, and seldom uses the vocative comma (the required comma before or after a term of address, such as a name), which to me is one of the marks that separates professional writers from amateurs. It also makes most of the other common mistakes, but not as often.

It's otherwise OK. It didn't make me want to read a sequel. It's a pretty solid three stars.

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Review: Comeuppance Served Cold

Comeuppance Served Cold Comeuppance Served Cold by Marion Deeds
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Marion Deeds is a reviewer for Fantasy Literature, which occasionally (by arrangement) republishes some of my reviews, and I've appreciated reading her thoughtful and thorough reviews, even where our tastes obviously differed. So when I saw a novel by her on Netgalley, I was immediately interested, and when I saw that it was a heist novel I was instantly sold.

It's unusually, but effectively, structured, in that the prologue (briefly) shows us the heist, and most of the rest of the book (apart from the wrap-up at the very end) is told in flashback, with headings indicating how long before the heist each scene takes place. This kind of thing is tricky to pull off, but the author makes it work, building some nice tension, introducing a number of subplots and additional characters, and performing a masterful slow reveal about the protagonist's background and abilities. All of this in competent prose with very few errors, even in the pre-publication version from Netgalley.

It's not completely without flaws. There are a few things that conveniently line up for the protagonist. (view spoiler) Even this, though, is subtly handled; it's not like the author is obviously manipulating events in the protagonist's favour at every turn. Given the setup - the mark is involved in harassing the smaller and more vulnerable members of the magical community - the fact that everyone's interests are aligned against him is plausible, and there are no sudden reveals of convenient get-out-of-jail-free cards at critical plot moments.

This is one of those heists where we, the audience, don't understand the whole plan until it's completed, and then we look back down the trail of all the events and see them fit together in a new light. It's a satisfying fiction experience to have, and the author pulls it off well.

I would very much like to read the further (or, for that matter, the fascinatingly hinted-at prior) adventures of this character, and will be keeping an eye out for them.


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Monday, 15 November 2021

Review: The Every

The Every The Every by Dave Eggers
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

A close friend of mine who works in tech recommended this to me, so I picked it up even though I thought it might not be my thing. It turns out that it wasn't, and for more than one reason, so I didn't quite get half-way through. Feel free, therefore, to dismiss what follows as not having given the book a fair chance before bailing.

Dystopian, for me, is a bit like kale. I don't enjoy it, but occasionally I consume some because I feel like I ought to.

I'm not talking here about the cookie-cutter teen dystopian fiction that was in vogue for a while there, by the way, but about genuine classics like 1984 or Brave New World.

The Every is written with a lot of skill in many aspects, though it's not in the class of those two I just mentioned. It's also a satire as well as a dystopian, and it has genuinely, if darkly, funny moments, like an entire busload of people sitting grimly on their phones searching for reasons, however tenuous, to be offended by whatever was happening, regardless of what that was.

It's a satire on big tech, which means it's a satire on Silicon Valley, which means it's a satire on Northern California and the kind of people who populate it, a weird blend of hippy sensibilities with nonsensical management fads and the cult-like corporate loyalty of a 1950s Japanese salaryman. Northern California seems particularly prone to cultishness, in fact, and that's definitely portrayed here. The people of the all-encompassing behemoth of social media, personal tech, and e-commerce that is known as the Every read as if someone set out to clone Kevin Kelly, but didn't know how to implement the Wise, Humane, Sensible, Knowledgeable and Self-Reflective features, so just left them on the development backlog and hacked in a "temporary" fix of corporate surveillance and Newspeak, figuring that would be fine.

It goes, in fact, beyond satire all the way to strawman, which is my other big problem with it. The Everyones, as they are known, are remarkably easy to manipulate, but apparently only in the direction of more dystopianism. The protagonist and her friend/roommate set out to penetrate the Every from within and sow the seeds of its destruction, but their approach - obviously flawed on the face of it - is to seed it with ideas so patently ridiculous and contrary to human values that people will revolt and reject it en masse.

As far as I read (42%), this never happened; their ideas, however awful, kept getting not only adopted but extended to be even worse. I glanced at the ending, because it felt like it was heading for a tragedy but there was still some possibility of a change of direction, and confirmed that it does, in fact, have a tragic ending, so I stopped reading. As someone who has bailed out of social media exactly because it resembles what the author is satirizing, I don't find watching an unfolding disaster of people at their worst to be either entertaining or compelling. I'm also (like Kevin Kelly) a techno-optimist, and an optimist in general about human nature; not being on social media is an essential element, for me, in maintaining that optimism, and so is not finishing a book in which there are hardly any people of goodwill who recognize the problem, and they're helpless to improve matters.

Nor do I find that a particularly convincing scenario, though, of course, satires don't have to be realistic. The "if this goes on" genre, of which this is definitely a part, has always exaggerated current trends, ignoring the likelihood that they'll either self-correct or be corrected by people with a different viewpoint.

What does make the scenario slightly more believable is that, thanks to pervasive social media, in the quite-near-future setting of this book there's no more local journalism (maybe no journalism at all), and the only place that people can organize collectively is owned and controlled by what they would be organizing against, plus it possesses near-universal surveillance. Any dissent could simply be buried by the algorithm, and there are no effective competitors, US regulators having apparently failed to prevent the Every from living up to its name and absorbing any competitor or startup that comes anywhere near its space. (Something which I find unlikely in itself, by the way.) A few isolated voices are all that is speaking up, and they tend to be Luddites, like the main character's old professor, who writes to her by hand on paper. In reality, of course, there are plenty of technologists who are speaking out against exactly these trends, there are whistleblowers and former employees and people whose companies were bought who have since vested and cashed out, all of whom feel entirely free to raise criticism of the various parts of Big Tech (combined, for rhetorical purposes of this book, in the Every, even though e-commerce is very different from social media, which is very different from search, which is very different from hardware manufacturing, and all of those sectors consist of multiple players both in the US and elsewhere).

The sheeplike Everyones, while giving knee-jerk lip service to diversity, are actually participating in a huge exercise of flattening, genericisizing, and homogenizing diversity, directed by more-savvy bad actors who know how to manipulate them or are simply taking personal advantage of what, in the universe of this book, is a kind of law of gravity by which everything is set up to get worse in general while benefiting some people in particular. In parallel to that, though, is the book's flattening of the complexity of what it is parodying and satirizing, the elision of real debate within the tech sector, and the manipulation that the author has to do to drive that "inevitable" decline for purposes of (I assume) a rhetorical point.

Said more simply: I understand this is a parody, but it's parodying something dramatically oversimplified from the real world. Not only that, but it's buying into the delusion that Northern California (where the author lives) is the world, that if you can fool some of the people all of the time everyone else will just go along without protest.

As a matter of personal taste, I don't enjoy dystopian dark humour, even if it's well done (which this is). But as a matter of philosophy, if this is meant to be a polemic and not just a comedic parody, I think it's too much of a caricature and leaves out too much for me to take it seriously. I have reasons for optimism, and I don't see them here.

I received a copy via Netgalley for review.

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Monday, 8 November 2021

Review: Bell, Book, and Key

Bell, Book, and Key Bell, Book, and Key by Rysa Walker
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It's just as well this is the last in the series, because it's started to lose me. (Don't start here, by the way. It continues straight on from the previous book without any recap or orientation for the reader. I read the previous book about a year ago, and didn't remember it well enough to avoid being disoriented at times.)

The genetic science has always been nonsense, and the different first-person narrators still all sound identical, so I frequently have to flip back to the start of the chapter to remind myself who the current "I" is. I've mentioned both of those things in reviews of earlier books. But in this one, the always-obviously-hokey manufactured religion - neither as well-organized as Scientology nor as thoroughly constructed as Mormonism - is far more successful than either, gaining what you might call market dominance in a theocratic USA. I found it implausible on multiple levels that, even with a secret Book of Prophecy capable of enriching people via stock tips and sports betting advice from a time traveler, this jumbled mishmash of bits cribbed from existing religions, vague self-help philosophy, and Ayn Rand-style Objectivist selfishness would take over so thoroughly. Not only is the secular impulse in the US extremely strong, despite the continued strength of civil religion there, but people with an existing religious tradition - Catholics, say, or Mormons - often have that as a powerful part of their identity, so it isn't just a religion but more like an ethnicity, and they'd be unlikely to give it up for something as nonsensical as the Cyrist religion. (Nor have I ever found it plausible that Cyrism could arise in the Middle Ages without being suppressed; this is something that's only ever touched on lightly, no doubt because to write the Cyrist scripture in authentic medieval language is something beyond the ability of either the fictional founder or the actual author.)

The whole thing reads to me as the work of someone who doesn't actually understand religion, or religious people, very well at all, writing for other people who don't understand religion either and using it as a bogeyman. Even when civil religion was a lot stronger than it currently is, a truly theocratic USA was never realistically on the cards; the whole structure of the government is set up to prevent it, and as we've recently seen, is surprisingly successful at preventing dictatorship and the complete dominance of any one viewpoint.

Even setting all of that aside, the way the timeline changes worked was deeply confusing and, I suspect, not entirely consistent. For example, (view spoiler). Earlier books have been complex, but I've followed them fairly easily; this one feels a lot more jumbled and confusing.

I'll close by mentioning the things that did work for me. As previously, the text is well edited, and even in the pre-publication version I had from Netgalley I only noticed a couple of small errors. (Probably because it's had a great many eyes over it, judging from the acknowledgements.) Also as in previous books, the history is well researched without beating the reader over the head with the research bat. It is pretty obvious which characters are real historical characters and which are fictional; the real characters are mostly seen at a distance, whereas the fictional ones get closeups and dialog. But there is an authentic sense of history, of the difference between historical periods, and that's a definite strength of this series and this author overall.

Disappointing, then, that there were a couple of things that didn't work so well for me, and (combined with the weaknesses I've been noting all along) dragged my rating down to three stars.

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Friday, 29 October 2021

Review: Under Fortunate Stars

Under Fortunate Stars Under Fortunate Stars by Ren Hutchings
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

There's a lot to like here. The editing, even in the pre-release version from Netgalley, was well above average. The main characters are distinct and well developed, both in backstory flashbacks and in the course of the main storyline, and they face varied challenges that test them, showing courage, determination and skill, and risking their lives for the greater good. All of that is exactly what I look for in a book.

Unfortunately, for me, all of this good stuff was countered by a huge problem: the fortunate coincidences. The title really isn't kidding.

Now, having one large fortunate coincidence that allows the plot to happen is a fault, but if everything else is good - and here, it is - I can forgive it. A large fortunate coincidence about every 10 or 15 pages, on the other hand, goes from a fault to a fatal flaw. And lampshading it by having characters talk about how lucky and miraculous it is that they have exactly the equipment, skills, knowledge, and people they need to make a highly unlikely and contingent escape from what amounts to a large sealed room in subspace - that doesn't help at all.

If the author hides a get-out-of-jail-free card up their sleeve and surreptitiously plays it at a key moment, that's cheating. But if the author openly writes out 40 or 50 new get-out-of-jail-free cards right there on the table in front of you and plays them every time the plot hits a problem... I don't even know what to call that.

I'll give an example in spoiler tags from a subsidiary part of the plot. (view spoiler)

It reads, to me, as if the plot wasn't outlined in advance but written by the seat of the pants. That's absolutely fine, and it can produce excellent stories - if the author unfolds the story organically from the initial seed of the situation, setting, and characters, rather than continually pulling things out of a location quite close to the seat of the pants in order to goose the plot back on track every time it becomes difficult. It seems like she's not even embarrassed about it, and she absolutely should be.

Incidentally, the blurb (as at the date I read it) claims that it's a "modern, progressive homage to classic space opera stories". As far as I can tell, this claim is made because two minor characters are a gay couple and two viewpoint characters are bisexual, which doesn't make much difference to anything. It's set far enough into the future that human names have all changed and you can't tell ethnicity from them; I think someone might have been described as brown-skinned once, but race is basically not a thing, and you could read any given character as whatever race you like. I can think of plenty of books that have more diverse characters and don't make a specific "progressive" claim.

Anyway: If continual massive luck in place of competent plotting is not a dealbreaker for you, this is otherwise a good book. But it was a dealbreaker for me, so much so that an otherwise four-star book drops all the way down to two stars.

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Friday, 22 October 2021

Review: Ancestral Night

Ancestral Night Ancestral Night by Elizabeth Bear
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Elizabeth Bear, for me, is a lot like Neil Gaiman.

That is to say, she writes extremely well; she shows deep knowledge in her worldbuilding without making the reader drink from the exposition bucket; she is what Neil himself describes as an "otter," meaning that she won't do the same trick over and over (like a dolphin) but will do a different trick each time; and a lot of her stuff is too dark for me to enjoy, despite everything else being in its favour.

This is one of the exceptions to the "too dark" issue. It's certainly tense, and there are dark deeds in it, but it's an essentially optimistic story.

It's space opera, but not the tropish cut-price space opera that kind of semi-updates Andre Norton's Solar Queen novels, Buck Rogers, or ST:TOS. It's more in the mould of Jack McDevitt or Ian M. Banks (the influence of Banks is particularly evident in the names of some of the ships). There are aliens that aren't just humans in rubber suits. There's technology by which people can perform emotional regulation and otherwise work directly with their own brains, including recording and transmitting their sensory experiences, which is a theme that's interested me considerably for the past 40 years. There's a society that isn't the usual galactic empire (seriously, why would anyone revive aristocracy as a way to regulate a technological society?), or vague clone of some poorly-grasped version of democracy and/or capitalism circa the 19th to 21st centuries, or note-for-note unreflective rendering of current US progressive thought (if "thought" is the word I mean). It's post-scarcity, and collectivist, but not Marxist; and it's definitely not libertarian, the libertarians (pirates) being the bad guys.

The book falls into several parts, each of which is good in its own way. The first part is the most reminiscent of what I would call old-style space opera, with a salvage tug and its crew encountering a mysterious deserted alien ship, leading to the first-person narrator, Hainey, gaining unexpected powers through alien biotech. The second part is a tense, extended confrontation between Hainey and one of the pirates while they're trapped together on a completely different kind of deserted alien ship, in which, with considerable skill, the author shows the confrontation of their two worldviews without it ever being a tedious talking sock puppet show. The questions that are being raised about identity, self-efficacy, self-definition, responsibility to others, the structure of society, and the modification of the mind are all deeply personal to Hainey, and she goes through a number of shocking revelations and has to cope with them as best she can in a far from ideal state.

The final part is somewhat of a return to the manner and themes of the first part, though transformed by Hainey's experiences through the middle of the book (which is how a really good novel should work). There are two more impressive, and completely different, alien encounters, a tense fight, and a resolution (partly through action) of the questions raised in the middle.

It's a bravura performance. The prose is capable, with plenty of quotable moments. The worldbuilding feels rich and deep. The story is multithreaded and expertly woven. The ideas about the mind and society are not just a layer of paint applied without thought, but are closely integrated into the story, and they're also somewhat original and thought-provoking in their own right.

Definitely one of the best books I've read in 2021 (so far, second only to Piranesi), and highly recommended.

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