Monday 26 February 2024

Review: Money for Nothing

Money for Nothing Money for Nothing by P.G. Wodehouse
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Not in the absolute first rank of Wodehouse, but a solid, amusing piece nonetheless, featuring several characters who turn up in other books; the hapless criminals "Chimp" Twist and Dolly and Soapy Molloy first appeared in Sam the Sudden and also have roles in several subsequent books, and Ronnie Fish and Hugo Carmody are later seen in the Blandings novels Summer Lightning and Heavy Weather (Ronnie being a nephew of the Earl of Emsworth).

The central romance involves Hugo's cousin John, a worthy but diffident man, unlike most other Wodehouse characters in that he has a job (manager of his uncle Lester Carmody's dairy farm), is good at it, and apparently likes it. He is, and has been for years, in love with Pat, the daughter of his uncle's currently-estranged friend Colonel Wyvern (the stock retired military man of the village), but she doesn't rate him because she sees him as lacking backbone. In the course of the book, he demonstrates that this is not the case.

Lester Carmody conspires with the criminals, not knowing that they're career criminals, to defraud his insurance company and convert some family heirlooms that are entailed to the estate into ready money. Of course, everyone double-crosses everyone else, and through a combination of courage and outright good luck, John is able to foil the scheme; in this sense, it's a kind of anti-caper in the same way that the Jeeves and Wooster books are generally anti-romances. Along the way, we meet a typical menagerie of vivid minor characters, from the elderly, rabbit-loving Carmody butler to the ex-sergeant-major who works for "Chimp" Twist under the impression that he's a respectable physician running a legitimate health farm, the gossipy local chemist, and John's opinionated Welsh terrier, Emily.

It's all good fun, well paced, full of reversals and near-misses and shenanigans, conveyed in the trademark playful-but-apt Wodehouse language. The copy I had from Project Gutenberg is based on the US publication, which has a few passages that the British edition lacked, according to the Madam Eulalie fan-site; it's well edited and shows minimal scan issues.

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Wednesday 21 February 2024

Review: Empire of Shadows

Empire of Shadows Empire of Shadows by Jacquelyn Benson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is pulp - intentionally so - with both the strengths and weaknesses that implies.

In terms of strengths, it's an exciting adventure with a Smart, Plucky Gal and a Hunky-but-Sensitive Man going into the wilds of British Honduras (now Belize) after a legendary, and apparently magical, artefact, in contention with a sinister and capable villain representing a shadowy cabal. The characters have personal weaknesses as well as strengths, have believable reasons for (in her case) not being initially honest and for (in both cases) not pursuing the romance they both come to want, and they are clearly of good intent. The storytelling and pacing are sound, and the emotional arcs well executed. The intelligent young woman is actually intelligent, both in that she knows a great deal about archaeology and in that she doesn't make obviously stupid decisions and have to be rescued from the consequences every five minutes (she rescues him at a key moment, in fact), and the decent guy is actually decent, which for me makes for an appealing romance couple; when the romance heats up, even without being explicit it's steaming hot, partly because they have such good chemistry. Ellie is also a more convincing archaeologist than, say, Indiana Jones or Lara Croft; she does her best to prevent the destruction and/or looting of archaeological sites, and values them primarily for the knowledge they hold. (view spoiler)

I went into the book not knowing anything about British Honduras in 1898, but the local detail felt authentic and gave the impression of an author who'd done the research; someone who knows more would very likely spot errors (judging by the issues I saw in the aspects I do know about, of which more below), but to someone like me who knows nothing about the setting, it's more than good enough to pass. I assume the discovery of another civilization ancestral to both the Maya and the Aztecs is part of the fiction, but (again, to a layman) the author sells it convincingly.

It's a long book, but the pace never lags, and I didn't feel tempted to put it down and read something else.

In terms of weaknesses, it requires an Accidental McGuffin Discovery followed by a Convenient Eavesdrop to get the plot in motion, and that's not the last coincidence either (turns out there's another connection between the chance-met main characters that raises the stakes of the romance plot). The characters have some lucky escapes, too. (view spoiler)

Like practically every book written by a 21st-century American with 19th-century British characters, it has a good many minor anachronisms (like a character who's being laid off asking about "severance pay" in 1898, and phrases like "sociopathic human lie detector," which is two anachronisms for the price of one); Americanisms in the mouths of British characters ("someplace," "off of"); and instances of incorrectly used vocabulary (like "malingering," which means pretending to be sick to get off work, used for someone who's been lurking around and spying); several British idioms are also used incorrectly, particularly "the rub" used to mean, I think, "the nub." The errors generally consist of substituting a word that sounds vaguely similar to the correct one, but means something completely different, which for some reason is a characteristic problem for fiction written in the 21st century but set before World War I. I think people attempt the more formal English of the Victorian era and end up using words they think they know, but actually don't. "Laid" is consistently used where the word should be "lay," too, and "arcana" is used as if it was both singular and plural (the correct singular is "arcanum").

The author is better than average with commas, apart from coordinate commas, which hardly anyone seems to get right, and which her volunteer editor, fellow author Olivia Atwater, is also bad at. She only messes up apostrophes occasionally, but makes almost every mistake it's possible to make with hyphens (again, Olivia Atwater is particularly bad at hyphens): putting them where they don't belong (such as between an adjective and the noun it modifies), not putting them where they do belong (such as in numbers between twenty-one and ninety-nine), or putting some but not all of them in compound adjectives like "two-thousand-year-old". She also misses the occasional word out of a sentence.

I also get the impression that the author is, at best, vague about the distinction between a rifle and a shotgun, which if you're writing adventure fiction you really should take the time to learn.

Note that I read a pre-release version via Netgalley, and some of these issues may be fixed by publication.

Still, although - like practically every book I read these days - it could benefit from more polishing, it's entertaining, suspenseful, fun and features a likeable couple, and I enjoyed it.

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Thursday 15 February 2024

Review: The Path of Mysteries

The Path of Mysteries The Path of Mysteries by Audrey Auden
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a tricky one. The author contacted me to ask for a review because I'd enjoyed Book 1 of the series (with some reservations), and although I normally have a firm policy against reviewing by author request, I waive it when I've already read an earlier book by the same author and given it a good review.

This one, though, didn't end up quite working for me. Let me try to unpack why.

First, some positives. The copy editing, even in the pre-publication ARC, is excellent; only a few capitalization issues. The premise is highly original, which is something I look for and, these days, often struggle to find.

Unfortunately, the originality is also one of the negatives, in that it goes so far outside genre expectations that I found myself confused.

I mentioned in my review of the first book that it has too many genres, including post-apocalyptic and YA dystopian (neither of which I usually read), and cosmic and cyberpunk (introduced late in the book). This book leans more into the cosmic and, to a lesser extent, the cyberpunk; the post-apocalyptic isn't that prominent, because the apocalypse was a long time ago and society has re-stabilized and is reasonably comfortable, so it's mainly a reason for the dystopian setup.

That setup was part of what had me confused. It is, first of all, clearly dystopian; men have essentially no access to education, knowledge, or power, which is all in the hands of immortal priestesses. This supposedly results from the aforementioned apocalypse, an environmental collapse caused by the short-sighted and arrogant policies of kings and corrupt priests; the panentheistic deity, the Voice in All, rendered a judgement that elevated the priestesshood, which had remained pure, to power and took away all power from men. Will men ever regain a fuller share in society? In a promise reminiscent of the Soviet Union's promise of a classless utopia, someday, but not yet.

Now, this to me is an obviously dubious explanation. As any up-to-date feminist will tell you, patriarchy harms men as well as women, and many will also admit that women can be complicit even when they have no overt power. The explanation comes from the high priestess, too, who can be counted on to have a major bias.

But one thing that confused me was that in this YA dystopia, the keepers and enforcers of the dystopian situation did not seem malevolent, power-hungry, devious or ruthless, but the leader (or at least a leader) of the resistance, Lilith, was all those things. Ava, one of the two protagonists, had been raised by Lilith to distrust the priestesses, which enabled her to question their justifications for the state of things, but Lilith clearly functioned in the book as an antagonist, and an antagonist that it was easy to despise. Perhaps this is a subtle subversion of the black-and-white tropes of YA dystopian, reminding us that there are people of goodwill and even wisdom among the maintainers of oppressive systems, and people of ill will among those who want to tear those systems down. But even as an adult reader who believes this, I wasn't sure where to put my support. The political structure and the tropes were pointing one way, the structure of the relationships within the book the other, and it left me scratching my head. Maybe that's intentional, but purely in terms of a fiction-reading experience, it wasn't optimal for me.

The other thing that confused me is that, despite a heavy preponderance of exposition over plot, especially early on, I never did get straight how the "branches" of the book's cosmic aspect worked. They seemed to be a version of the many worlds hypothesis of quantum physics, which was supported by some technobabble about storing information in quantum computers to make it available across multiple branches; but because it was closely intertwined with the cosmic aspects, and those weren't really clear, I was never sure how the presence of the same characters on multiple branches worked, and whether there was a reincarnation aspect or not. Dom, the second protagonist and Ava's love interest, is present on branches in advanced versions of our world's San Francisco as a middle-aged man rather than the teenager he is on Ava's world, but he appears to remember a youth in her world; that was never explained, and Ava never asked about it.

I was left with a lot more questions than answers at the end of the book, in fact. Others include: why, a couple of pages after stating that only Ava, of all the girls, spoke to him or knew his name at the Children's Temple, does Dom reminisce about his close relationship with Hana at that same place? If a Muse is made a Muse by an Artifex choosing to do a major project with her, and Dom, as an Artifex, is expected to choose "a Muse," and there appear to have only been two Artifexes prior to Dom, why are there more than two Muses? Why do two of the Muses have the names of Greek muses appropriate to what their specialty is, while the others don't? Why, in fact, are the names in general (both people and places) a grab bag from half a dozen different cultures' mythologies? How does food production in this society work? (That last question was left over from the first volume.)

Unfortunately, I didn't find this book compelling enough to persevere with the series in the faint hope of getting answers. Ultimately, there wasn't enough plot per thousand words, and despite the mass of exposition - mostly of the cosmic aspect - I ended the book without a clear idea of where the story was going, how the world(s) worked, or even where my sympathies lay. It's unfortunate; it has the opposite problem to most of the new books I pick up for review, in that while it's well edited and original in concept, in terms of its storytelling and emotional arc I found it didn't work so well for me.

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Friday 9 February 2024

Review: The God-Touched Man

The God-Touched Man The God-Touched Man by Melissa McShane
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read the first in this series some years ago, and this year finally got round to reading the sequel (after a re-read of the first book, which was just as good as I remembered). I didn't enjoy it quite as much as The Smoke-Scented Girl , but that's a high bar to clear, and this is still a fine book. It's just that Smoke-Scented Girl gripped and compelled me throughout with a combination of personal and wider stakes that were expertly intertwined, flawless pacing, and a hero and heroine I had no issues cheering on from the start, and this book didn't quite achieve any of that to the same degree.

Still, there are personal stakes and world-saving stakes, and the hero and heroine are both admirable, and there's plenty going on. I did feel that the resolution of the romance plot felt a bit sudden and was placed more like an epilogue than a climax. Resolutions, in fact, tended to come a bit suddenly overall, after long periods of lower tension, rather than having the kind of sustained tension and well-prepared shifts of the earlier book. And the protagonist does carry the idiot ball at one point, in order for his situation to get worse because he hasn't spotted something he really should have. (view spoiler)

Overall, though, it's a fine piece of writing, with very few editing issues and set in a well-realized world. The characters are appealing, the action well described, the stakes compelling, and I recommend it.

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Thursday 8 February 2024

Review: The Journeyer and the Pilgrimage for the Origin of Magic

The Journeyer and the Pilgrimage for the Origin of Magic The Journeyer and the Pilgrimage for the Origin of Magic by Benjamin T. Dudley
My rating: 0 of 5 stars

Didn't get far in this before the language defeated me. It's one of those where the author is going for high-flown but doesn't have the chops for it, and occasionally drops a clanging colloquialism like "ass" in the middle of the attempted eloquence.

My spidey-sense always goes off these days when I read that an author has a degree in creative writing; whatever they teach in creative writing class, it's not basic mechanics like punctuating dialog or avoiding comma splices, clearly; based on the examples I've seen, maybe it's to attempt to write books that you don't yet have the experience to pull off.

Plus, there's a prophecy (a negative for me) from a character who is on drugs (big negative) who is apparently 10 years old (huge negative, when paired with the drug use), and it's post-apocalyptic (that's another negative).

Other people liked it; you may too. I did not.

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Review: Hour of Need

Hour of Need Hour of Need by Michael Pryor
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is almost what that the whole series should have been, and had the potential to be.

I say "almost" because it's still full of the same copy editing issues (though fewer of them than some of the other books), and still relies on coincidence to enable the plot at key moments, and the magic system is still "whatever the author needs at the time". But it's a gripping adventure story for all that, moving smoothly and rapidly from one well-depicted set piece to the next.

The tsundere Caroline is a good deal more dere without being any less tsun, since there's finally been progress in the romance subplot beyond "Aubrey moons over Caroline, admires every single thing she does". He's in for a tough time in that relationship, but a) he needs it and b) it'll be worth it for him.

(view spoiler)

My summary of the whole series is: It had potential to be excellent, but didn't fulfill that potential because the experienced author has not learned some basics of language mechanics that he ought to have learned, and the traditional publisher has not corrected many of the errors he makes; because the author is much too prone to use fortunate coincidence to get his characters together in the place where the plot is going to happen; because the worldbuilding approach is "it's almost exactly Edwardian Europe with a couple of minor changes, plus magic, but everything is given a different name to make it seem more different"; because, despite the series title, the "laws" of magic are never really laid down in a Sandersonian way, so that the reader understands what they can and can't do, and they are often just pulled out of the author's back pocket (or a location quite close to there) and used to do whatever the plot calls for; and because the romance subplot makes almost no progress until the last volume. Some of the middle books (2, 4 and 5) are particularly weak. At its best, it's a rip-roaring adventure with appealing characters and spectacular set-pieces, but even at its best it's dragged down by its weaknesses. Average rating: Bronze tier, and lucky to get it, but it was compelling enough that I finished the series. I'm glad I got it from the library, though, because the whole series on Amazon would cost nearly $60 USD, and it's not worth anything close to that amount, given the unprofessional editing and general slapdashery.

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Thursday 1 February 2024

Review: Moment of Truth

Moment of Truth Moment of Truth by Michael Pryor
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The heroes have spent four books attempting to prevent the start of Not-WWI, but they've failed, and it looks like the villain, Doctor Tremaine, will get the massive number of deaths he needs in order to cast an immortality spell.

Naturally, Aubrey and his trusty sidekick George enlist, and naturally they're selected for special training, and naturally they're sent off on a dangerous mission along with Aubrey's love interest, the highly competent Caroline (despite all being only 18 and having had minimal training), and naturally they bump into pretty much every other significant character by sheer outright coincidence, which is one of my big gripes with this series.

The other big gripe is that it isn't polished to the standard it ought to be, considering it's from an experienced author and a major publisher, as I've mentioned in all my other reviews for the series. There are a number of places where the wording of a sentence isn't quite right, or a word is missing, and there are a couple of errors the author makes consistently that a copy editor ought to have fixed, particularly "may" in past tense where it should be "might". I noticed a common error in this volume that I hadn't seen so often in previous ones: the omission of "had" (the past perfect tense) when referring to events before the narrative moment. There are also continuity errors, like golems being unable to do anything but simple repetitive tasks when in previous books golems have successfully impersonated important people, and errors like an airship headed for Europe from Not-England heading to the west.

There is lots of varied action and creative magic, although since the Laws of Magic are never really defined or fully enumerated, magic can do anything the author needs it to in order to solve whatever problem Aubrey is facing. There's an apparent contradiction in this volume, in that Aubrey is unable to cast any spells because he's gagged, but Tremaine casts a spell with a gesture and no words; perhaps Tremaine is able to do that and Aubrey isn't, but if so, that isn't remarked on or explored at all.

The end of the fourth book seemed to promise some progress at last in the Aubrey-Caroline romance, but that seems to have been retconned back to status quo here, and Aubrey just keeps pining and admiring everything (everything!) Caroline does, no matter how minor.

There's briefly another woman in the picture, who looks as if she'll be a rival to Caroline, but no; in one of the few plot twists I didn't see coming from a mile off, (view spoiler). In my review of the previous book, I wasn't sure whether I could see the twists coming because I remembered them unconsciously from reading it more than 10 years before, or whether they were just obvious. I haven't read this volume before, so that gives me the answer: they're obvious, though not to the supposedly brilliant Aubrey.

Buried under this large accumulation of small infelicities is a good action-packed pulp adventure with appealing characters and well-phrased flashes of humour (though the occasional puns aren't even good enough to be bad). I just wish the author and publisher had put in more work to dig it out.

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