Tuesday 31 July 2012

Review: Nobody Gets the Girl

Nobody Gets the Girl
Nobody Gets the Girl by James Maxey

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I don't usually enjoy books with protagonists I don't like. And I don't like Nobody much at all (which is a lot less Southern dialect than it sounds, when you're talking about this book, since the protagonist is, often confusingly, called Nobody). I can see why his wife was happier in a world where he didn't exist. He treats women badly, he's lazy and unmotivated, he makes inappropriate jokes, he doesn't demonstrate a lot of ability to care about anyone but himself, or, if he does care, to care unselfishly.
Nobody, paradoxically enough, is a kind of American Everyman. His moral decisions reflect this. Yes, he's the only character who seems to care about preventing the bombing of hundreds of kids (a tick in the Hero column, though he doesn't take any personal risk in saving them). But his solution to moral dilemmas is the same throughout: kill someone. In this he's not a lot different from the various flavours of villains and psychos who battle it out throughout the book, except in terms of scale.
The book is beautifully well-written, and Nobody's quips, however inappropriate, are genuinely funny. That's why I've given the third star. But I dislike the moral universe of Nobody intensely, and I definitely won't be reading the sequel, which centres around two anarchic psycho supervillains.
If antiheroes are fine with you, though, by all means get this book. The author writes very well.

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Sunday 29 July 2012

Review: The Hall of the Wood

The Hall of the Wood
The Hall of the Wood by Scott Marlowe

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I give this a solid three stars, because while it certainly has serious language issues, I enjoyed the storytelling.

What I mean by language issues is that Scott Marlowe, like all too many writers, has a smaller vocabulary than he thinks he does, and tends to use words incorrectly because he doesn't actually know their meaning and they sound like the word he does mean. He doesn't always spell words correctly, either (he consistently writes "scraping" as "scrapping"), and there were examples of "it's" for "its" and "who's" for "whose". His sentences sometimes have missing words, change number partway through, are grammatically incomplete or (often) have misrelated participles.

All these are issues that a good editor would fix. What's harder to get right is an enjoyable and engaging story, and while Marlowe hardly breaks new ground with this generic secondary-world fantasy, he does tell his story well and avoids the worst cliche of the genre: a Chosen One on a quest to save the world.

The issues the characters bring with them made them a little more rounded, and while the plot is occasionally driven by someone doing something stupid, it's always understandably stupid and not (as is so often the case with books like this) unbelievably stupid.

With a good editor, and preferably a little more originality in the worldbuilding, this could be a writer to watch.

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Wednesday 18 July 2012

Review: A Plunge Into Space

A Plunge Into Space
A Plunge Into Space by Robert Cromie

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I got this from Singularity & Co's Save the Scifi kickstarter, as the first (and so far only) reward. The idea is that they'll clear the copyright of out-of-print SF works and turn them into ebooks. This particular one is, presumably, in the public domain, having been published in 1891.

They scan the books and run them through OCR. Now, the thing about OCR is that it needs very, very thorough human proofing afterwards, and this just hasn't received it. In fact, it doesn't seem to have even been thoroughly spellchecked, judging by the words with letters misrecognised as numbers. There are very frequent and obvious OCR errors, most of which are just annoying (because it's easy to see what the word should have been), but some of which are obscure enough that the sentence is turned into nonsense. And for some reason the font is tiny (I had to crank it up two extra notches on my Kindle) and the text is double-spaced. These basic ebook formatting errors, added to the lack of proofreading, don't bode well for the professionalism of future releases. Because of how annoying this makes the book to read, I can't rate it above three stars.

The story itself is surprisingly good for an author from 120 years ago who I've never heard of. It's witty (in a wry 1890s way), it has characters who aren't just there to point to the shiny but actually have conflict and friendship and story going on between them, and the speculation is well done, at least in patches. The civilization of Mars has advanced technology (some of which we would recognise as commonplace today, though it was wild-eyed speculation in the 1890s), gender equality and minimal government, but isn't a pure utopia - it's on the point of beginning a decline because of the lack of challenge, which is a well-observed point. There have been plenty of SF writers since (in fact, there are some still writing today) who have less insight into technological progress, social progress and psychology, who are less amusing and tell a less interesting story.

On the other hand, the technology is very handwavey, and although women have equality on Mars they don't appear to have it in the writer's head yet. The trope of "naive innocent daughter of a scientist who's basically the cause of all the trouble" was to last well into the 1950s, sadly, and this may be one of the earliest examples.

More interesting as a historical curiosity than as a story, but I think it stands up better than other early SF - in some ways, I'd put it above the much better known H.G. Wells story [b:The Time Machine|2493|The Time Machine|H.G. Wells|http://photo.goodreads.com/books/1327942880s/2493.jpg|3234863], which is seriously lacking in character development in comparison.

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Tuesday 17 July 2012

Review: The Trouble with Demons

The Trouble with Demons
The Trouble with Demons by Lisa Shearin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It's a little while since I read the first two in the series, and I was pleased to see that there are now several more. These are funny, sassy, action-packed books with a streetwise and smart-mouthed heroine.
Although she (and even more so, her family) fall into the "lovable rogue" category, they put themselves at risk repeatedly to save others' lives. That's something that calls for a bit of willing suspension of disbelief, but Lisa Shearin pulls it off as far as I'm concerned (mainly by showing how personal and family connections between the characters motivate them).
This contribution to the series keeps it moving nicely, with an ending which leaves Raine with the immediate problem solved but more enemies and complications than ever, a good solution to "middle book syndrome".
Recommended if you want something light, humourous and black-and-white with plenty of fast-moving action.

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Saturday 14 July 2012

Review: Timepiece

Timepiece by Heather Albano

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I got this as a "people who liked this also bought" recommendation from Amazon, based on having bought books by Lindsay Buroker. I can kind of see why. The main character is an adventurous young woman who's defying gender roles, and it's ever-so-slightly steampunky, though a bit less than Buroker if anything.

One of the mistakes that an author can easily make with a book like this is to go over-the-top with the heroine's capabilities or suddenly pull out abilities that are unrealistic. Heather Albano managed to avoid that, clearly establishing in advance her ability to do everything she ends up doing and showing that it wasn't easy or straightforward for her. This not only makes the action believable, but it also increases suspense: Is she going to make it?

The romance wasn't too rushed or overdone, either. It's pretty obvious to me who Maxwell's parents were, but it's not obvious to the characters, and I found that believable.

Time travelers altering the outcome of Waterloo (which is apparently notorious for the number of ways it could have gone differently) is a good centre to build the book around. I liked the idea of what are effectively Frankenstein's monsters multiplying and becoming weapons that turned in the hand that wielded them (it makes no biological sense, but if you can skip over that it makes all kinds of story sense). The Victorian mecha and the struggling underground in a Britain in the grip of totalitarian overlords were nicely judged.

In fact, the whole book was well-constructed, the ideas were original, the characters believable and the prose well-written and well-edited. I'm not personally a big fan of dark and dystopian, as a matter of personal taste, which is why I only give four stars instead of five. I know I'm near one end of a spectrum of taste there, so for many people this may well be a five-star read.

I'll be subscribing on Albano's website to be notified when the next one comes out (it's due soon).

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Thursday 5 July 2012

Review: A Modern Witch

A Modern Witch
A Modern Witch by Debora Geary

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I bought this because of a recommendation that came from Nathan Lowell, and I can see why he likes the series. It has very much the feel of his Solar Clipper books (the early ones, at least): no antagonist, people helping other people, loving families and friends, people who are in many ways living ordinary lives and facing the ordinary challenges of family, relationships and work with courage and good-heartedness.

Also like Lowell's books, food and drink are very important. Lauren, the main character, is always eating comfort food (ice cream and chocolate being favourites), and a lot of the scenes take place over meals.

It's not, therefore, a non-stop thrill-ride. But it is heartwarming and enjoyable, and I immediately bought the next in the series as soon as I'd finished.

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Tuesday 3 July 2012

Review: The Emperor's Edge

The Emperor's Edge
The Emperor's Edge by Lindsay Buroker

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Thoroughly enjoyed this one. It has action, suspense and humour. It also has a kickass heroine who's believable (and a natural leader - although she does engage in fighting quite competently, her real skill is in talking people into doing things). Her ill-assorted group - a cold master assassin, an alcoholic historian, a vain aristocratic pretty-boy and a surly teenage would-be wizard - are lively, fun and convincing characters, as is the idealistic youthful emperor they (unbeknown to him) are setting out to save.

I was pleasantly surprised to see that it was self-published. It stands up beside any traditionally published book I've read recently. The author does fall into the common author trap of using fancy words that don't quite mean what she thinks they do, but the editing is as good as plenty of trad publishers are putting out these days.

I think I found this book because I saw some sensible stuff she wrote on her blog and liked the book's premise - and it was free at the time, I think. As soon as I finished it I bought the next one, and unless there's a dramatic drop in quality at some point I'll be buying the whole series, and anything else she writes.

Three things in particular that I liked were the strong heroine whose strength is not just that of a gender-switched man, the steamed-up setting that wasn't all brass, clockwork and airships but actually felt like a real place, and the flashes of situational humour scattered amidst the action and the desperate plots. Also, the heroes are kind of incompetent sometimes, get a little bit battered about but not to the over-the-top degree that a lot of steampunk heroes do, and don't end up lauded as heroes.

The whole thing has the worn feel of a setting like Serenity, and also the same kind of strongly individual, somewhat flawed characters in an ensemble cast that works both because of and despite its diversity.

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Monday 2 July 2012

Review: The Janus Affair

The Janus Affair
The Janus Affair by Philippa Ballantine

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

At first, as I was reading this, I found myself in the position of the parents at the school play in Down With Skool!. "At least," I said, "it's better than last year's."

The first Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences novel has been widely praised, and has even won an award, but personally I was profoundly unimpressed with it (my Goodreads review is here). At the end of that review, I said that despite its many flaws it looked like it had promise, and that the sequel could well be better. It is, although some of the same flaws are still on display.

First, of course, the jokey names. I'm not a fan of jokey names - I think it's a cheap attempt at getting a laugh (and from me it doesn't). Books and Braun, seriously? Not to mention Bruce Campbell (apparently the name of a modern B-movie actor), Miss Shillingworth (the equivalent of Miss Moneypenny), and the insertions of the authors' friends: the clankertons Axelrod and Blackwell, and the cracksman Fast Nate Lowell. Each time this sort of thing occurred, I was jerked out of what suspension of disbelief I'd managed to achieve and reminded of the book's status as a work of fiction. But that could be just me.

Steampunk, like Camelot, is a silly place, and I can't really carp at the anachronistic technology. It's a genre trope, and I always try to allow for genre tropes. But the book is full of other anachronisms, too. There are two real historical people in The Janus Affair, Kate Sheppard and her son Douglas, but they are the wrong ages, and I suspect there's not much else about them that's historically accurate either. In 1896, which is when the book is set, Kate Sheppard was 49 (not "over 50"), and, more importantly, Douglas was 16, not the full-grown man portrayed. The New Zealand rugby team wears black and performs the haka, 8 years before the 1905 "Originals".

So let's assume that no historicity is intended. I'm not sure that excuses the many anachronisms of speech. I'll talk about the New Zealand speech, since as a New Zealander I know how we talk. The New Zealanders use the Maori greeting Kia Ora, and refer to New Zealand as Aotearoa (which was a name first used by a European in 1898, and wasn't commonly used by pakeha - non-Maori New Zealanders - until about the 1990s, as Kia Ora also wasn't). I don't think New Zealanders called people "mate" in the late 19th century, either, though I'm open to correction. Most of the slang seems to be contemporary - there's even the phrase "not all that," meaning "not very good," which is American ghetto slang from the early 1990s.

Even if we set all that aside, there are a great many - a very great many - language mistakes. Not as many as in the first book, where they were almost constant - here, we go whole chapters without one - but they are still numerous.

The authors are obviously bad with homonyms and near-homonyms: they write fair for fare, bobble for bauble, eluded for alluded, touting for toting, grizzly for grisly and so on.

They (and their editor) don't spellcheck adequately: women's is punctuated as womens' (twice), and visible is spelled visable.

A woman's name is spelled Francis (which is the masculine form - the feminine is Frances).

Some passages, mostly Books' internal dialogue, are full of awkward sentences like this: "This was another unique trait of Eliza's semi-clockwork housekeeper: she was not a fixture or addition to the household." What does that even mean? Or "Even if the women were to receive the vote, the right would never befall on Alice as she was… merely a contrivance to the manor"? It's gibberish. If you must write like a 19th-century newspaper (and really, must you?), at least do it competently. Or even comprehensibly. There are also many sentences with words missing or misplaced or simply wrong: "More disturbing of all…" Even the best sentences are seldom vivid, and I never thought "that's exactly the right word choice" or "that's really well put", while I often thought "that's the wrong word for what you apparently mean".

Then there's "serve at Her Majesty's pleasure" - you keep using that phrase. I don't think it means what you think it means.

As I said before, this kind of error was much more common in the earlier book, but it's far from eliminated in this one.

There are errors of continuity. Books didn't break the rules in the rugby game. He says it, Douglas says it. And then a couple of chapters later, "he had blatantly broken the rules…".

There are errors, or what look like errors, of scene. How the heck do you throw a tray at someone who's facing you and hit them in the elbow? Or punch someone who's facing you in the kidney?

Dr Sound keeps giving the main characters days off every time something disturbing happens. Another anachronism? A present-day employer would do that, but would a 19th-century one?

Likewise, the duke and the doctor addressing each other by their first names? What?

Unlike the first book, where it felt severely forced to me, the attraction between Books and Braun seems much more natural here. But there's another forced-seeming attraction: The assassin is attracted to her heavily cyborged Maestro at the end of a chapter in which she continually complains to herself how high-handed he is and how he treats her with no respect. And then nothing more ever comes of it.

So, still a great many flaws. On the macro level, though, the book I thought improved a lot on its predecessor. I've noticed that Phillipa Ballantine has a tendency to leap straight into the cruelty, mayhem and death without waiting to establish empathy (which is why I've so seldom finished her books), and she's much more restrained this time. There's even a brief moment, admittedly after someone dies and not before, where we're told (though not shown) how devastating that was to her family left behind. This is progress. There aren't nearly so many innocents slaughtered this time, and the villain isn't as over-the-top.

The main action still comes later than I would prefer, but there are bits of action scattered through the earlier part of the book. A book like this cries out to have lots of action scenes, to race from one to another (a tried-and-tested way to distract readers from flaws, incidentally), and we don't get that.

All in all, The Janus Affair earned its third star, and I'd like to hope that with hard work and attention to detail the next one could make it to four.

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