Sunday 28 October 2012

Review: The Well of Ascension

The Well of Ascension
The Well of Ascension by Brandon Sanderson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I've been watching the videos of Brandon Sanderson's writing course at BYU, and it's interesting to be reading one of his books at the same time (particularly since he draws on his own writing for examples sometimes). Here is a spectacular example of plotting. At the end of each of the six parts, there's a twist or a big reveal. There are constant surprises and turnarounds, which kept me glued to the page. I was always wondering "How on earth is he going to get them out of this one?"

There's lots of action, too, but every fight is different. He never writes the same scene twice.

Mistborn has a couple of things going for it in terms of my personal taste, as well. I love superhero novels, and basically the Mistborn and the Mistings are superheroes, albeit in an epic fantasy setting. I'm not a fan of the same-old-same-old epic fantasy formula, on the other hand, but Sanderson puts wonderful spins on that formula. The result is a fresh story that wouldn't be quite the same if we didn't know the formula he's playing against. The ideas of the Chosen One, the Dark Lord, the wise mentor, even the returning king all get turned inside out and upside down. It's not just play for the sake of play, either. It makes for some deep and moving moments as the characters discover how their expectations were tragically wrong.

One of Sanderson's stated goals is to achieve "Orwellian language", which isn't (as you'd expect) doublespeak, but language that is like a clear window through which you see the story, without noticing the language itself. But, he has a distinctive language quirk that occurs over and over again and which, once I had noticed it, I found very distracting. I won't say what it was to keep from driving someone else crazy with it, but the previous sentence in this review contained an example of it. It's not wrong, exactly, just unconventional.

Other than that, I am thoroughly enjoying the Mistborn series, and will be hunting out other Sanderson books as well.

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Tuesday 23 October 2012

Review: War for the Oaks

War for the Oaks
War for the Oaks by Emma Bull

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I loved Emma Bull's [b:Territory|70581|Territory|Emma Bull||68392], a weird-west version of the Shootout at the OK Corral that leaves Mike Resnik's [b:The Buntline Special|8253037|The Buntline Special (Weird West Tales, #1)|Mike Resnick||13100750] gasping in its dust (sorry, Mike). And people kept telling me how good War for the Oaks was... but I was still amazed.

Published back in 1987, here is one of the founding books of urban fantasy. It's almost all here: the feisty contemporary woman, smart and independent, having to deal as best she can with the supernatural; a powerful sense of place (the Twin Cities, in this case) and time; the supernatural threat, of course, and saving the city, if not the world, therefrom; even the romance and the sex is here. With a shapeshifter, no less.

There are two differences between War for the Oaks and most urban fantasies being published today, though. One is that it's written in third-person limited rather than first person, which is a trivial stylistic difference when you do third-person limited as well as Bull does. And the other is that Bull can write really, really well.

I don't just mean that she's good at telling a story. Plenty of today's urban fantasists can do that. Bull's protagonist Eddi is a poet (though she denies it), and it's with the voice and eye of a poet, and the intonations and perfect word choice and beautiful phrasing of a poet, that War for the Oaks is told.

And yet it never, for me, crossed that line from "beautifully done" to "done in order to be beautiful". It's not self-indulgent or self-conscious or self-anything. It's such a pleasure to read a book written by someone whose vocabulary is not smaller than she thinks it is, who doesn't use a single incorrect homonym, and who chooses her words so well.

It's also a pleasure to read an urban fantasy in which we're not told, but are shown, that the protagonist is a strong, independent woman. Eddi protagonizes like crazy. She makes things happen with courage, determination and intelligence, and by cultivating alliances like a smart hero. She never once has to be rescued by a man from a boneheadedly stupid but plot-advancing decision, something that happens all too often in urban fantasy (possibly having come in via the "romance" part of paranormal romance). In fact, she rescues a man instead. We also see her romantic choices improving throughout the book, right from the first chapter, where she has decided to dump her decorative but otherwise useless boyfriend.

So much of urban fantasy seems like a poor echo of War for the Oaks now. I only wish Emma Bull had written more like this.

In fact, I wish anyone had.

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Saturday 20 October 2012

Review: Psion Beta

Psion Beta
Psion Beta by Jacob Gowans

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'll be honest, this was a three-star book until near the end.

See, the problem with writing a book which features people from all over the world is that there are at least two traps you can fall into. One is to make all of them sound more or less the same, and like members of your culture. The other is to have them all be stereotypes.

Sadly, this book falls into both traps. Although the Americas, north and south, are the enemy in this book (an interesting and unusual choice), all the kids sound to me like Americans. They don't use highly obvious US slang, but there's enough that to me, a non-American, it's noticeable. The South African main character's favourite sport? American football. (Nobody seems to play soccer.)

Anyone who isn't named as being from a specific country, like the commander, seems generically American too.

At the same time, the kids are a series of stereotypes. The black kid was in trouble with the law (though at least he's not good at basketball). The Scandinavian girl is an attractive blonde. The Irish boy comes from a poor family with ten kids. (He's the only one who seems to have a hint of his own dialect. He often says "I'll tell you" to emphasize his sentences. Personally I don't remember ever hearing an Irish person say this, but maybe it's regional.) The Chinese guy is very serious. (Again, most of the Chinese people I've known have had hilarious senses of humour, but for some reason the serious Chinese guy is a stereotype.) The other African keeps talking about her tribal elders and braids feathers into her hair.

It's difficult to make people distinctive and of a specific culture without using stereotypes, I'll grant you, and at least the protagonist is non-white. His status as the protagonist may save him from the accusation of being a "magical negro", because he's not only got the same genetic superpower as the other kids, he has an extra one that makes him even better. This, along with the fate of his former friends, is something he oddly shows no curiosity about.

That lack of curiosity is one of two issues I had with suspension of disbelief about human behaviour. The other is part of the backstory. There was a devastating plague, and in response, people... became rational, set aside their differences and formed a world government? Um, probably not. Plagues make people afraid, and frightened people don't cooperate well, not spontaneously at least. Perhaps there's more to the story that will come out later in the series, though.

Most of the way through the book, these problems were what I was mainly noticing. The story itself had been decent enough, though a little formulaic, the usual YA teen-romance-rivalry-angst that we've seen many times before, reasonably well done but not groundbreaking. The editing is mostly good, apart from the occasional sentence where the words have been partially, but not fully rearranged, and I only spotted one homophone mistake ("repelled" instead of "rappelled"). That's much better than average for a self-published novel, so I was thinking "three stars, but I probably won't buy the sequel".

I thought I had the ending all figured out, too, but it turned out I didn't. Yes, I correctly predicted that things would go horribly wrong, and when, and approximately how, but the details and the twists were well enough done that they earned another star. And the outcome was not what I predicted.

I do intend to read the sequel, now, simply because of how the book picks up at the end. I just hope that the level of action and excitement the last few chapters reach is sustained in the next volume.

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Tuesday 16 October 2012

Review: Stalking The Unicorn

Stalking The Unicorn
Stalking The Unicorn by Mike Resnick

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When I was deciding whether to get this or not, I hesitated because of one or two reviews which suggested that it tends to be whimsical for no good reason. That is, there are whimsical scenes which don't end up having anything to do with the resolution of the story.

I should really have listened. Whimsical for no good reason works all right in a children's book, but this is definitely not one. It's a kind of clash, and I do mean clash, between a noir detective story and... not Alice in Wonderland, because it's not as good, and not Sylvie and Bruno, because nothing is that bad... maybe The Hunting of the Snark? The Phantom Tollbooth, only without the puns? Something along those lines.

If the whimsy was really, really hilarious, like Hitchhiker's Guide, that would be all right too, but it isn't. The completely unnecessary scene, for instance, in which the last surviving Genie of the Market mourns the loss of passion in the New York Stock Exchange now that it's all computerized. It has no significance for the plot, and it isn't funny. It just takes up space.

The characters are all stock, and never rise above that, even the protagonist. His dialogue is good, though, and generally I was amused by it.

Having said all that, if those pointless scenes were cut, and if a more careful editor had gone over the book after it was OCR converted from the print edition, it wouldn't be bad - though it would still be overpriced.

I won't be buying the rest of the series.

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Friday 12 October 2012

Review: Resonance

Resonance by Chris Dolley

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It's not often that I buy a book thinking it's something completely different from what it actually is, and still end up giving it five stars.

I wasn't in the mood for anything that was already on my Kindle, and I felt like something amusing, so I thought, "That steampunk Wodehouse pastiche [b:What Ho, Automaton!|11097620|What Ho, Automaton!|Chris Dolley||16019636] was funny. I'll get something else by the same guy." I glanced over the Amazon reviews for Resonance, and one of them described it as a "romp", plus it was getting lots of stars, so I grabbed it.

It's not a romp. It's not funny, really, at all, except for moments here and there. What it is is a really, really good technothriller which gripped me almost continuously from beginning to end.

Chris Dolley pulls off a few remarkable feats here. Firstly, he has the characters provide a series of completely different, complex explanations for the strangeness that's going on in their lives, and makes them all sound reasonable. Secondly, he makes an uncommunicative, almost autistic, obsessive-compulsive man who deliberately leads a boring, predictable life his main character, and then keeps me on the edge of my seat through the whole book while I cheer for the guy. And thirdly, he writes an ending that didn't let down the rest of the book.

The premise, when we finally learn what is actually going on, doesn't bear close scrutiny as science or even a self-consistent system, but as a fictional premise it worked well for me. Certainly it was no worse than anything Michael Chricton uses, and Michael Chricton is the author I was most reminded of here.

Even when Chris Dolley isn't funny, he's good. I'll remember that.

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