Monday 30 December 2013

Review: Under the Skin

Under the Skin
Under the Skin by E.E. Richardson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Fluently and competently written, but darker than I usually go for, and with that weary British sense of hopelessness against the system. That doesn't, fortunately, stop the protagonist from doing the right thing despite considerable cost and opposition, which is largely why it got a fourth star from me.

It's shorter than I expected, and finishes abruptly with several things unresolved and on a worrying note. I can see why the author left it that way, though, since tying everything up neatly would have been difficult to pull off believably and also anticlimactic.

Because it's darker than my usual taste, I probably won't look for other books by this author, but if that doesn't bother you, it's well-written and I recommend it.

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Thursday 26 December 2013

Review: The Sorcerer's Daughter

The Sorcerer's Daughter
The Sorcerer's Daughter by Larry Kollar

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A brisk and fun continuation of the Accidental Sorcerers series. In the previous volume, Mik, the boy of the teenage pair of apprentice sorcerers, went off on a solo adventure, and in this one it's the turn of Sura, the girl. There's some good setup at the start to show how they learn the magic that they'll need, and to reinforce the closeness of their bond, which is also significant.

Although the story is quite short, it's complete and satisfying, something I don't often say about shorter works. I think it's because of the good setup followed by a clear, strong arc for the main character.

The final revelation about Sura's parentage did seem to me to contradict something stated earlier in the series, and indeed an earlier scene in this story, but it was the right answer in an emotional sense, so I give it a pass, just.

I'm glad the series will be continuing, and look forward to the next volume.

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Review: Water and Chaos

Water and Chaos
Water and Chaos by Larry Kollar

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It's a relief to have a well-edited indie book that isn't constantly distracting me from the story because the author doesn't know where to put the apostrophes, and it's also a pleasure to have a good story, likeable and believable characters and a well-thought-out world.

In this second volume of the Accidental Sorcerers series, teenage apprentice sorcerers Mik and Sura have a romantic misunderstanding that, for me, skirted but didn't cross the line of being unbelievable. I think the key word in that last sentence is "teenage".

Mik is everything I like in a main character: loyal, honest, brave, resourceful and talented. Cheering for him is easy.

I did wonder how the economics worked of one person working for a few days being able to feed an entire school for, presumably, a similar period, but other than that I thought the worldbuilding was well done and plausible.

I already have the sequel on my Kindle and will be reading it forthwith.

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Movie Review: The Hobbit 2, Desolation of Smaug

I go to the movies very seldom. In fact, the last time was when I saw the first Hobbit movie (three-star review here). I'm unlikely to go for the third movie in the trilogy.

I had heard mixed reviews of Desolation of Smaug, and I tried to go in with low expectations to enjoy it as what it is: not as an adaptation of a beloved book but as a Hollywood blockbuster, with all that implies. I surprised myself by liking most of the story additions, even the love triangle with the OC Tauriel. (Let's face it, these movies are high-budget fanfiction.) What I didn't like was what I didn't like the first time: the de-rogueification of Bilbo and the utterly absurd action sequences. In both cases, this movie had more of them than the first one did, so there was more for me to dislike.

Bilbo first. Bilbo is one of the sources of the D&D "rogue" or "thief" character class, along with the Grey Mouser and a few others. Although he's still referred to as a "burglar" here, everything that makes him a rogue or trickster has been taken away from him. He didn't get the trolls arguing with each other in the first movie, and in this one he doesn't fool the spiders, he just fights them. He doesn't hang out in the elvish stronghold thieving and learning his way around, he just happens across the opportunity to get the dwarves out. The wine barrels are retained, though he doesn't pack the dwarves in them (so that there can be gratuitous and rather dull action sequences, of which more later). His bantering with Smaug isn't the (over)confident cleverness of a proven trickster - because all opportunity for him to become one has been removed; he hasn't gained any XP in Rogue. It's the desperate improvisation of a trapped incompetent who's out of his depth.

I neither know nor care whether Hollywood thickheads nixed the tricksterism on some vague moral grounds. All I know is that the essence of Bilbo's character has been lost.

So, to the action sequences. Here's a piece of advice Peter Jackson needs to heed. "Don't write action sequences. Write suspense sequences that require action to resolve."
There's no suspense about whether the dwarves will be killed by the orcs, or whether Legolas will be (since it's a prequel to movies in which Legolas is very much alive). There's nothing else at stake in the action sequences apart from who wins, and since we know that going in, they're boring. And they go on far too long. As a friend of mine commented, they would, ironically, be more exciting if they were shorter. 

Not only that, but they're cartoonish and utterly, completely ridiculous. I compared the falling-platform-in-the-goblin-mines sequence in the first film to Michael Bay. The action sequences in this film make Michael Bay look like a sophisticated and nuanced filmmaker with a deep reverence for the laws of physics and human(oid) biology. When the youngest child in the theatre laughs out loud at how absurd a piece of action is, you've obviously missed your mark. 

Legolas the superhero surfing down the stairs on the shield, swinging himself one-handed onto the horse or swarming up the mumakil were among the scenes I liked least in the original LOTR trilogy. Here, we see mainly Legolas, but also Thorin, performing the same kind of absurd feats. We see a great deal of fire (and even molten metal) that isn't, apparently, hot, based on its lack of effect on the dwarves. We see lots of action, but speaking for myself, I felt no tension whatsoever throughout the entire movie. The characters have character armour a foot thick, and timing that you'd never dare require in a video game because it would be unplayable. 
I said of the first film that it was a long three-star movie with a much shorter four-star movie trapped inside it. This one is a long two-star movie with a much shorter three-star movie well-hidden underneath all of the nonsensical action.

Saturday 21 December 2013

Review: The Scent of Metal

The Scent of Metal
The Scent of Metal by Sabrina Chase

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the second book I've read by Sabrina Chase, and from this admittedly small sample it seems that she likes to do fresh things with genre. I'm all in favour of that.

Her book [b:The Last Mage Guardian|13123884|The Last Mage Guardian|Sabrina Chase||18299611] wasn't your typical fantasy, or even your typical steampunk fantasy, either in its trappings or in its storyline. It had a strong (in the sense of competent and talented, not violent) female protagonist, and a romance subplot which was an extra layer, not an intrusion on the main plot. Substitute "space opera" for "fantasy" and "hard-ish" for "steampunk" in what I've just said, and you have a good description of The Scent of Metal.

I call it a hard-ish space opera because it has some of the themes more typical of hard SF (like first contact and AI), but it doesn't make you drink from the science hose. The setting is a background for the characters' struggles, rather than the characters being there to explain the setting to each other and wonder at its cleverness. In fact, the key speculative element - the protagonist's ability to communicate with the alien machines - is never explained at all. The ending sets us up for sequels, so this may well be remedied. Myself, I didn't mind that it wasn't all wrapped up with a bow around it at the end.

The book opens with a clear problem: Researchers on an alien spaceship (disguised as Pluto) somehow activate the ship and it takes them out of the solar system. They have limited supplies, so they have to find a way to make it take them home again quickly. This is a strong story problem, and it sustains a mystery-style plot in which the protagonist and her competent sidekicks face credible obstacles and progressively overcome them, largely through intelligence. I am very happy with this kind of plot, though the never-explained power of the protagonist did seem a touch convenient once or twice.

The characters have flaws and baggage from the past, and it's relevant to how they behave. I liked them and wanted them to win. Can't ask much more than that.

The language does a competent job of getting us from place to place, and I found only one significant error (which is outstanding, especially for an indie book): a missing apostrophe from the phrase "arm's reach".

I reserve five stars for books that blow me away completely with their depth and literary quality, and this didn't quite reach that level. It's a very strong four stars, though, a good piece of entertainment excellently done.

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Wednesday 18 December 2013

Review: Peacemaker

Peacemaker by K.A. Stewart

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A well-done bit of Weird West with a likeable protagonist.

This is America (Kansas, to be exact) in a world in which most people have magic, arcane-powered transports replace the horses they're modeled on, and Native American magic is strong enough that the USA stops at the Rockies. The eponymous Peacemaker (think US Marshal) brings his magic, his staff and his familiar (a cute jackalope named Ernst) to the town of Hope, where he has to deal with a Bad Wealthy Rancher.

I give that last phrase capitals because he's a trope, one of a number of tropish characters. The friendly saloonkeeper (who's Scottish), the helpful general store owner, the grumpy blacksmith (who's Swedish), the schoolmarm, the kid who's running a bit wild but has potential, the mysterious old Indian shaman. They do come through as individuals, though, not just chess pieces or cardboard cutouts (and, after all, there are a limited number of roles you can have in a Western).

The protagonist is the Wounded Veteran, something he struggles with through the course of the book, though it helps rather than hinders him when the chips are down. He fought for the Union in the Civil War and lost a chunk of his power, as well as gaining a nasty scar. He seems to have plenty of power left, though.

Although it doesn't break new ground particularly, this story puts a fun spin on some beloved tropes, and is told fluently and engagingly. It's well-edited; I found only six minor typos, which, if you follow my reviews, you'll know is a small number (I often get into double figures even with traditionally-published books). At the end is an excerpt from another series, an urban fantasy which I'll probably track down.

All in all, a good bit of entertainment.

(I received an advance reader copy through Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.)

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Monday 9 December 2013

Review: As the Crow Flies

As the Crow Flies
As the Crow Flies by Robin Lythgoe

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I do love a good rogue, and this book offers one. Though let down a little by editing issues and a lot by the female characters, overall it was enjoyable and well-written if I overlooked those factors.

Editing issues first. It's written in a literate, intelligent style, which makes the problems that much more vexing. There are only a few, but they are pervasive.

Firstly, apostrophe placement in phrases like "servants' entrance" and "merchants' quarter". I've just given the correct placements (since the entrance is used by more than one servant, and there is more than one merchant in the quarter), but the author writes "servant's entrance" and "merchant's quarter". Other examples: bandit's horses, peoples' stomachs (an overcorrection; "people" is what the stomachs belonged to, so it should be "people's"), guard's sashes, brother's knives, owner's food stocks, Ancestor's magic, visitor's menials, neighbor's houses. In all those cases, the noun was plural and so the apostrophe should be after the s. The apostrophe is also missed out of "four months' travel" (you wouldn't say "one month travel" but "one month's travel").

Then there's the almost completely consistent use of "affect" where it should be "effect" (both the verb and noun versions). There's also "poured" for "pored" in one place. "Laying" for "lying" may just be part of the voice of the first-person narrator, though I suspect it's another error by the author.

A number of sentences also change grammatical direction or tense partway through, there are missing minor words like "of" occasionally, and there are several dangling participles ("A professional dancer, I had first set eyes on Tarsha..." - where Tarsha, not the speaker, is the dancer).

It's not like there's an error on every page. I marked about 40 (some of them the same ones repeated), and this is a long book. With very rare exceptions, commas are in the right place, too. But there are enough errors that I found them annoying and distracting from the story.

The story itself is a classic piece of sword-and-sorcery, in which a rogue, accompanied reluctantly by a fighter, goes on a quest to steal an object desired by a wizard. There's the old "I've poisoned you and you have to come back to me for the antidote" trope. The hero collects an accidental, troubling, but highly useful superpower seemingly at random in the course of the adventure.

Does it rise above the tropes? It does, though not all that high at times, and there are a couple of tropes that troubled me more, the ones around the female characters. We have three: The selfish and mercenary seducer/whore/betrayer; the Woman in a Refrigerator, who exists only as a male character's motivation; and the mute (the male protagonist observes that at least she doesn't chatter like other women) who is always crying, devoted to the protagonist for no obvious reason, and annoyingly dependent, though she is surprisingly, and indeed unexplainedly, competent with a crossbow at a couple of moments when that's useful. I'm aware that the author is herself a woman, but these are not promising female characters, to me. In fact, they're a worry. This lost an otherwise enjoyable book its fourth star from me.

The protagonist/narrator is a rogue, and so we expect him not to necessarily be a nice guy (though he tries not to kill people if he can help it). His desire not to become emotionally entangled is understandable, and he protests too much of not caring, so we suspect that he cares more than he lets on... though sometimes it does actually seem like he doesn't care, that the act isn't an act, and at those moments he isn't a very likeable character and I, in turn, don't care quite as much what happens to him.

What does happen to him involves a lot of pain and suffering, as is, again, usual for this type of character in this type of book. When that happens to Locke Lamora, or even Eli Monpress, it means something. Here, it's just another trope.

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Wednesday 27 November 2013

Review: Charmed Life

Charmed Life
Charmed Life by Diana Wynne Jones

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Diana Wynne Jones has a wonderfully whimsical ability to worldbuild (of which J.K. Rowling should be jealous). Books with magic in are slowly tending to become more technological (as our technology becomes more magical, perhaps, or maybe it's just because of games in which magic has to be "balanced"); there are clear rules for what can and can't be done. This author was writing before that trend, or ignored it, and her magic is like the magic of folktales. It works because it ought to work, because having it work that way is cool.

She was also writing before "head-hopping" (switching between third-person viewpoints in the middle of a scene) became so denigrated, and a couple of times it's disorientating. Her style is the simple, declarative style of books for younger readers, but there's nothing wrong with that, though if I'd been her editor I would have said "show, don't tell" a couple of times and suggested more active phrasings for a few sentences. The writing, in other words, isn't flawless, but the story, the characters and especially the world make up for it.

The main viewpoint character is a boy known as Cat, for reasons that, when explained, turn out to be very important. He's afflicted with a sister named Gwendolen, who is as self-centred as a gyroscope and reacts badly to being thwarted, causing a cascade of trouble for poor Cat. By the middle of the book he's in not just one, but four or five bad situations, with no solution in sight, and all of them are Gwendolen's fault.

The secondary characters are delightful. The powerful Chrestomanci, in particular, with his beautiful clothes, is like a less self-centred Howl, but each one of them has some characteristic of appearance or mannerism that makes them distinct and memorable.

This is the first of a series of six books, and I'll be reading the others too, I think.

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Monday 25 November 2013

Review: Greater Treasures: A DragonEye Novella

Greater Treasures: A DragonEye Novella
Greater Treasures: A DragonEye Novella by Karina L. Fabian

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I haven't read any of this author's books before, so this 99c novella acted as an introduction. It's good enough that I'll probably look for some more, though it's not my new favourite.

The premise: it's a liminal fantasy (this world and a world of magic become connected, and the story takes place on the borderland where magic and technology mix). The dragon defeated by St George was not killed, but reduced in power, and is now working as a noirish PI along with a magic-using nun, basically earning his powers back by doing good works. (The author is Catholic, and so is the dragon.)

It's a premise with a combination of well-worn and fresh elements, and overall it worked for me.

The language: The book is generally well-written and the standard of editing is high, with only a couple of typos, impressive in an indie book.

The characters: Vern, the dragon and first-person POV character, is convincingly both a dragon and a noir PI. He values his partner the nun very highly (in this story, she's injured early on and functions mainly as a motivator for his actions, but I would expect that in the series in general she has a more active role), and is, on the whole, a decent being trying to do the right thing. In part, this is because he can regain some of his dragon abilities by doing so, but it also seems to be heartfelt.

The secondary characters are not very developed, inevitably in a novella. They're one step above cardboard cliches, with at least a sense of being individuals, even if that individuality isn't fully explored.

The plot: it's a fairly standard McGuffin plot straight out of the noir playbook. There's an untrustworthy dame who hires Vern, an untrusting policeman who reluctantly works with him, all the usual stuff, plus the danger-to-the-partner subplot. At novella length, plots are usually not that complicated, and this is no exception.

I felt the eventual resolution was a bit of a cheat, since if it was something that would have worked I would expect it to be a known solution already, rather than the spur-of-the-moment improvisation it's presented as. That's what lost the story the fourth star. It made good emotional and symbolic sense but bad logical sense, and to me, a resolution should be both emotionally satisfying and also plausible.

I liked the matter-of-fact, non-preachy incorporation of a living faith into the lives of the characters, and was impressed by the standard of the editing, but if this is to be a favourite series I'll be looking for more depth and greater plausibility in other stories.

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Saturday 23 November 2013

Review: Libriomancer

Libriomancer by Jim C. Hines

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A high four stars for this one, approaching the elusive five.

I've been aware of Libriomancer for a while, but I've only recently got round to reading it. First it wasn't available in an ebook edition (at least, not where I live), and then the ebook price was excessive. Now that it's come down to more reasonable levels, I decided to pick it up and compare and contrast with [b:Celebromancy|16595339|Celebromancy (Ree Reyes #2)|Michael R. Underwood||22798602], which I just read. In short, I enjoyed Libriomancer a great deal more, thanks to stronger characters, better editing, more attention to detail, and even a more exciting story (which was the strongest aspect of Celebromancy for me).

The forms of the two titles tell you something. Celebromancy is about a phenomenon. It's based around an idea, a premise: "What if some celebrities got magical power from their fans?" It's the sequel to Geekomancy, where the premise is "what if some geeks could get magical power from pop culture?"

The premise of Libriomancer at first seems similar: "What if some people could access books and magically draw out useful items from them, because of the collective love and belief of the people who read the books?" However, as the title hints, it's about the character (the libriomancer) more than it's about the phenomenon. The premise really is, "What would it be like to be a person who could do that?" (And the answer is, "Incredibly cool!")

Libriomancer is told in first person, where Celebromancy (except for one of its many errors) is in third, and this further helped my identification with the character. Although both books have strong plots, and the characters in Celebromancy aren't terrible, Libriomancer's characters (including the non-first-person ones) had more depth, and it felt like a character-driven book. I certainly came to care more about the characters in Libriomancer.

Another factor which had a strong influence on my enjoyment was the first-draft feel that I discussed in depth in my review of Celebromancy, compared with the finished, polished feel of Libriomancer. It's true that I read an advance reader copy of Celebromancy, but I know from looking at the Amazon sample that some egregious errors persist in the published version, and there were a great many of them (about 90) in the version I read - not only typos and homonyms, but scenes that didn't fit together well, continuity errors and inconsistencies. In Libriomancer, I found only two or three issues, all minor. One character is inconsistently spelled as DeGeorge in some places and De-George in others; a character says "less frontal development that I should have expected", with "that" substituted for "than"; and I'm not even sure that the use of the word "excised" instead of "exorcised" was an error, since it does still make sense (though "exorcised" would be the more usual word to use for removing a spirit). That's it.

Now, it would be possible to carp about some of the details of the plot. It's cinematic, but it's urban fantasy; why shouldn't it be cinematic and over-the-top? The author clearly loves adventurous sci-fi and fantasy, and it's very much in that vein, with plenty of fights, explosions, vampires, magic, exotic weaponry, detective work, loved ones at risk, the fate of the world in question, a crazy, dangerous antagonist, everything you could want in an urban fantasy adventure (except possibly werewolves, though there are chupacabras if you must have something dog-shaped and dangerous). I enjoyed it for what it is, able to immerse myself in the fiction because it wasn't full of distracting errors that kept pulling me out of the story.

Because the author is so well-known as a feminist ally and anti-sexist activist, I feel I should discuss that aspect a little. The main character is male, but he's backed up by a female character who functions as the muscle (she's a supernatural, and stronger than him). She's actually from a book (a book which exists in the world of Libriomancer, though not in ours), an adolescent fantasy in which the women are both physically strong and also completely submissive to their lovers. Her (female) lover has been captured and is being held effectively hostage by vampires, and she transfers at least part of her allegiance to the protagonist for complicated reasons. The protagonist is attracted to her, but as a decent man is uncomfortable with the fact that her nature makes her want whatever her lover wants, thus providing a secondary tension while they run around trying to solve the main plot problems.

I thought the character relationships, and sexual politics, were handled well and creatively, even if the resolution for the situation is odd and fraught with problems (something which isn't at all glossed over). The author also does a good job of making the woman's hostage lover into a character, not just a Woman In a Refrigerator, by giving her an existing (professional) relationship with the main character, a scene around the middle in which she has lines and an agenda, and another such scene at the end.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and although I won't be breaking my self-imposed price ceiling and paying $9.99 for the sequel, I will be watching for it to come down to a reasonable level and then jumping on it with glee. (Unfortunately, I can't get it to add to my tracker on ereaderiq, so I'll just have to check periodically.)

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Monday 18 November 2013

Review: Wrath

Wrath by Morgan Alreth

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Disclaimer: the author offered me a free copy, with no expectations, because I had given the first book a good review.

I very much enjoyed the first volume, and, unusually for the second volume of a series, this improves on the first, if anything. It certainly doesn't suffer from the usual Middle Book Syndrome. Many second volumes are largely filler; this stands on its own as an enjoyable book, while building on the first volume and setting up for the third.

I am heartily sick of the Chosen One of Prophecy, but Morgan Alreth manages the difficult feat of giving us a Chosen One of Prophecy who's not spoiled, entitled, whiny, Cursed with Awesome or operating in god mode, and what's more gives us True Love that's troubled and far from idyllic (for believable reasons). He gives us a female lead who's not a Kick-Ass Heroine (which means exactly like an excessively violent man, only emotionally screwed up and interested in clothes), a Damsel in Distress, a Woman in a Refrigerator or any of the other worn-out tropes I've grown so weary of. Pete and Jess feel like real characters, not cardboard cut-outs covered in trope tags. Their actions, their relationships, how they feel about their situation, their conflicts, all ring true, and I never felt that they were doing, saying or feeling anything simply in order to make the plot come out some predetermined way. The secondary characters mostly felt real as well, though with so many of them not every one could be distinctive.

The writing has the occasional touch of passive voice, though it's not obtrusive, and the version I read needed a thorough proofread. (I've passed some notes on to the author and anticipate that the proofreading errors will be fixed very soon.) Otherwise, it's well-written, vivid and vigorous, and carried me enjoyably through a believable plot in the company of likeable and realistic characters.

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Review: Celebromancy

Celebromancy by Michael R. Underwood

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I give a book three stars for one of two reasons. The more common reason is that it's neither particularly good nor particularly bad, just kind of average. The other reason, and the one that applies here, is that it's simultaneously good and bad. There are aspects that deserve four stars, and other aspects that deserve two, and I split the difference.

I read the sample of the first book in the series, [b:Geekomancy|13609386|Geekomancy (Ree Reyes, #1)|Michael R. Underwood||19206590], and didn't find it engaging enough to want to read the rest, particularly since there were so many negative reviews. However, I thought I'd give this one a chance when I saw it on Netgalley, and picked up the ARC (advance reader copy).

That means I didn't pay for this book, but got a free copy from the publisher for purposes of honest review. There's a big disclaimer in the front that says I should compare it with the published version before I quote anything, because it's not the final version.

Well, I didn't go so far as to buy the published version (which is out now), but I did download the sample, and most of the issues I'd found in that part of the book were still there. I was saddened, but not surprised, because the standard of editing at major publishing houses is dropping and I've stopped expecting much. There were still two embarrassing homonym errors ("wretch" for "retch" and "lead" for "led", the latter being repeated twice more in the rest of the book), and there was still a scene in which the characters apparently entered the same car twice. One thing was fixed: throughout the book, there are hyphenated adjectival phrases like "freaked-the-hell-out". In the ARC, the first hyphen was missing, but in the sample of the published version, it was there. There are probably a couple of dozen of these phrases, and they're an annoying enough quirk without also having errors in them, so I hope the editor got them all (and the outright misspellings).

I've been a publisher's editor, I beta read for indie authors, and my observation is this: The best predictor of a clean book is a clean manuscript. As I was reading through this one - not in its final form, remember - I marked 90 passages where there was a misspelling; a word missed, added or substituted; a long sentence that changed grammatical direction partway through; an apostrophe in the wrong place; the wrong homonym or wrong word entirely; a run-on sentence; an apparent contradiction or continuity error (like Room 719 plus two floors taking you to the eleventh floor); a momentary switch from third person into first; or a description of physical action that made no sense to me. That's omitting the missing hyphens, which, as I say, I assume were resolved. I know some of these have probably been fixed, but I'd be very surprised if it was the majority.

That last category, physical action that made no sense, surprised me. Judging from the text, the author has played at least some tabletop roleplaying games, possibly a lot, and I would expect that description of physical action would be consistent, well-thought-through and well-conveyed. It frequently isn't. The main character appears to have an unmentioned third arm to use for moments when she's carrying two milkshakes and walking with a cane, or holding onto someone's waist with her legs, holding a lightsaber, clinging to a cart (presumably, unless she's levitating, and that's not mentioned) and also pressing a panic button. I'm not sure whether these scenes are poorly thought through or just poorly conveyed (or both), but in either case, it's a big weakness, especially in an action-oriented, cinematic story.

The lack of attention to detail I found continually annoying, especially since the author uses a quirky, unusual style that draws attention to itself (and therefore makes errors all the more noticeable). For example, every time a character is introduced, they get a set of stats in what looks like some version of D&D or a similar game. These stats apparently mean nothing and are used for nothing; a man for whom "Gentleman" is his lowest stat is described a page later as "above all things...a gentleman". This makes it simply an irritating quirk, and in writing, unlike gaming, an irritating quirk doesn't give you more points to put into something else. It's just irritating.

So those are all the reasons I wanted to give this two stars. Why did I also want to give it four stars, and compromise on three? Well, the story itself was well done. The issue that the main character was setting out to solve was introduced early, it had personal significance for her but wasn't just a personal issue, she had some satisfactory try-fail cycles as she attempted (proactively) to resolve it, she struggled and sacrificed and experienced the costs of heroism, the secondary characters had some depth to them (mostly to do with people they cared about, always a good one), the premise was fun and offered good fictional possibilities which the author played with entertainingly.

It deserved to be good. It should have been good. If the author, or his beta readers, or his editors (and he credits several of each) had worked harder on the details and ditched some of the more irritating quirks, it would have been good, and I would be recommending it far and wide. As it is, I was disappointed.

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Monday 11 November 2013

Review: Side Jobs: Stories From the Dresden Files

Side Jobs: Stories From the Dresden Files
Side Jobs: Stories From the Dresden Files by Jim Butcher

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I just re-read this, so I'll review.

This is an entertaining collection of stories that fall in between the Dresden Files novels in sequence. I remembered partway through that I meant to re-read it in between re-reads of the novels, so that all of the events fall into their proper order. Oh well - next time.

As with any collection of short fiction, some are better than others. I particularly enjoyed the ones from perspectives other than Dresden's, like his brother, the vampire Thomas Raith, or his friend/love-interest Murphy.

A nice little bit of technique in the Murphy story. Dresden always describes the character Marcone as having eyes the colour of old dollar bills, but Murphy describes the colour as being like three-day-old grass clippings. That really helps to sell the fact that this is a different narrator with an independent viewpoint.

Another story, slight in itself, that I especially liked was the one in which Dresden learns (from an angel) that some of his passing comments or seemingly trivial acts of kindness or care for others will have an impact far beyond their apparent weight. The author states that it's based on an experience of his own (which is how authors get many of their best moments).

Not a starting point for a new potential Dresden fan, since, despite the author's best efforts to introduce the characters and their background in the stories themselves, you really need to have read the novels to understand who they are and why their actions, and connections, are significant. For someone who has read and loved the novels, though, definitely a book worth adding to the collection.

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Monday 28 October 2013

Review: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

(Harry Potter re-read concludes.)

I've come to the conclusion that being famous is a problem, largely because people won't say "no" to you. You could ask Michael Jackson about that, except... yeah.

Case in point. For a long time - roughly the first 418 pages - this was a long three-star book with a much shorter four-star book trapped inside it, and apparently nobody dared to tell the author this.

I also recall wondering how they were going to make two movies out of it, because my memory was that not much happened. Actually, in the last third, quite a bit happens - it's very exciting - but unfortunately there are the first two-thirds.

The problem is that these books are written to a formula. There's a mystery plot, and Harry kind of thrashes about and solves the mystery mainly by accident; but in the previous volumes there were so many subplots about Quidditch and exams and the Triwizard Tournament and the House Cup and who's snogging whom and potion books and Snape and Malfoy and whatnot that we stayed interested, even though the mystery wasn't progressing very fast. In this book, there's none of that distraction, the mystery plot is standing on its own, and it's just. Not. That. Interesting.

Not only that, but the contrivances by which Harry does make progress have nowhere to hide, either. The whole series, with the exception of the prologues-by-another-name (that name being Chapter 1) that begin each book, sticks to a very tight third-person limited, which is Harry's viewpoint. This means that while he's travelling round the country with a price on his head, it's very difficult for him, and hence us, to find out what's going on or, in fact, get any new information that might help him to solve his problem.

So we get a Convenient Eavesdrop, when by incredibly unlikely coincidence several people who happen to have exactly the information he needs talk about it in his hearing without realising he's listening to them. I groan when I encounter a Convenient Eavesdrop. It's a hack's solution, unworthy of Rowling, who, most of the time, is original and clever.

And then we get the faithful companion who becomes unfaithful and leaves, and can't get back by the nature of the case, and then by what looks like deus ex machina (only explained near the end) does get back, with important information, and also saves the protagonist's life.

And the "makes mistake, captured by the enemy, not only escapes but takes others with him and gains several advantages by doing so" sequence. It's old. It's tired. It was creaking in the 1930s.

I'm willing to forgive these lapses, though, because the last 200 pages are mostly one thrilling episode after another. There's a trip to the Department of Backstory (which, however, suddenly makes sense of everything that's gone before), and a few hokey moments along the way, but the final third of this final book makes up for a lot. There's much to be said for a good ending, and I was genuinely moved as Harry, invisible, passed Ginny for what he believed was the last time and heard her comforting an injured girl. Some of the deaths of beloved characters, though, left me strangely unmoved, perhaps because there's no build-up to them. Just, "Oh, so-and-so is dead".

The epilogue? I'm still not sure. On the one hand, it shows what they were fighting for, and does a good job of it. On the other, it's a perhaps clashing change of tone. On the whole, I think I like it.

Verdict on the series? Uneven, certainly. Full of minor style issues, definitely (commas where they have no business being, passive voice, and all the rest). Dark, sometimes gruelling fantasy oddly built on a fifty-foot-thick foundation of whimsy and outright silliness. Pitted with plot holes and more than a few contrived coincidences. But engaging, often funny, frequently (though not always frequently enough) suspenseful and adventurous.

Despite its flaws, I love it, and I wish there was more of it. Which isn't the same as wishing the books were longer.

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Saturday 26 October 2013

Review: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

(Harry Potter re-read continues.)

I mentioned in my review of the last book that, even though it was long, it didn't drag. This one does, a bit. It becomes especially noticeable when you hit the 30 or so pages near the end that are actually exciting and gripping, and realise that the preceding 500-odd felt a bit over-padded, thick with teen relationship angst, arguments about a potions book, detentions, and Quidditch (including an off-screen Quidditch triumph that is, therefore, not exciting). It's a commonly-made joke that Voldemort is considerate enough to only spring his serious stuff at the end of the school year, obviously respecting the educational process, and never was it more obvious than here. The fact that, after the climax, there's a long denouement doesn't help, either.

The plot also seems a bit strained. There's a massive lampshade hung on the fact that it's only by good luck that Harry is able to carry out an important mission, and his friends are able to avoid being killed. All the worldbuilding is whimsical, which means that it's hard to ask the question "How would that even work?", but... lucky potion?

And speaking of being killed, authors are a bit like dogs. Once they get a taste for killing, they'll do it over and over, and escalate. The first three books (if I remember rightly) had no on-screen deaths, though death was certainly hanging about in the backstory and being narrowly and luckily avoided. Then a secondary character we'd not seen in previous books went down. Then a secondary character that we'd seen in a couple of previous books went down. Now a major character who has been in all the books goes down, and we're set for the final book's total bloodbath, beloved characters dropping left and right, George R.R. Martin style. I mean, I understand that stakes have to get higher as the series progresses, but I don't know that this is the only way.

Rowling is interested in writing female characters, of all kinds (there's a YouTube video about it that's worth watching), and in this and the previous book we finally get Strong!Ginny. Ginny starts out whiny and tearful and characterless, progresses through "helpless victim to be rescued", and finally, in Order of the Phoenix, grows some ovaries and starts to be interesting. We don't really see how she makes the transition, unfortunately; she just gets a sudden personality transplant. And then at the end of this book Harry makes the "we can't be together because it's too dangerous for you" speech, and she takes it equably and without arguing, which I found surprising. Anyway, she had some good moments for a while there.

Second-to-last books are like second books, hard to make strong, and this one isn't strong, by the standards of the series. I know I saw the movie in the theatre, because my wife complained bitterly all the way home about the scene where everyone lights up their wands like cigarette lighters at a rock concert, but to be honest I can't remember any other scenes from it apart from that one. I can't even remember what Horace Slughorn, a reasonably major character, looked like. Was it (as we thought at the time) because it was a bad movie, or is this part of the story just unmemorable? I'm starting to think the latter.

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Thursday 24 October 2013

Review: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The reread continues.

The longest of the series manages to pull off the difficult feat of (mostly) not seeming too long. There is a slightly swampy middle where Umbridge's reign of terror drags on longer than it really needs to, but otherwise it's well-paced, and the battle near the end would be worth wading through a lot more to reach.

Speaking of Umbridge, I think the movie casting improved on the book. Book Umbridge is toadlike and ugly, in the unfortunate code that says that villains are unattractive. Movie Umbridge is all the more sinister for her relatively normal appearance, in exactly the kind of bureaucratic, falsely nice way she should be. And, of course, the movie has the wonderful callback moment: "Tell them I mean no harm!" "I'm sorry, Professor, I must not tell lies."

I had a good smile at the insight that banning a publication is a great way to ensure that people will want to read it, something the author had plenty of experience with by this point (not to mention her youthful experiences in Amnesty International).

As well as a fine portrayal of what it's like to live under tyranny (and how to resist it), this book has a strong theme of family. The whole series does, but this book does in particular, with Hagrid giving voice to it specifically, while many little touches, like the way Molly Weasley regards Harry as another son, or his relationship with his godfather, reinforce it.

Unfortunately, this is the book of Angry!Harry. He's angry pretty much throughout, and although being psychically linked to Voldemort offers some excuse, it's still tedious to have so much teenage anger. As the Chosen One, he can be lacking in discipline and still ultimately succeed, with the bulk of the cost falling on someone else. Not his finest hour.

Whatever else you say about Rowling, though, she certainly can do pacing, and by keeping lots of plates spinning she holds our attention through nearly 800 pages as if it weren't no thing.

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Monday 21 October 2013

Review: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Harry Potter series re-read continues, and now we come to one that, on re-read, has a couple of plot holes or inconsistencies. (Very minor spoilers for this extremely well-known, 13-year-old book follow.)

Inconsistency 1: How Portkeys work. At the beginning of the book, Portkeys appear to be single-use and one-way, and only work at a specific time chosen by the person who set them up. But at the end, we see a Portkey used a second time, to go in the other direction (but not to exactly the same place, to a more dramatic one), without any apparent time issue. I can't think of a logical, in-universe reason why this Portkey would work this way. It's only there to serve the plot.

Inconsistency 2: This is only apparent on a re-read, because in the next book, we're told that people who have seen death can see Thestrals, the horselike creatures that pull the carriages that take students to and from the station at Hogwarts. However, at the end of this book, Harry apparently doesn't see them, even though the "horseless" carriages are specifically mentioned. He can see them in the next book, because of a death that he'd already witnessed at the time he was going back to the station at the end of this book.

OK, with those out of the way, how was the book overall?

By this time, J.K. Rowling was a major public figure, of course, and having to deal with an ill-informed and sometimes hostile media. She takes beautiful author's revenge using the character of Rita Skeeter, the classic distorting reporter, and even manages to characterise her as an annoying insect. There are more indications of corruption in the Ministry of Magic (even Mr Weasley and his friends deal in favours to "fix up" potential problems with the law), culminating in the Minister's cowardly denial at the end, which creates the starting point for the next book.

Rowling has had multiple plot threads going right from the first book, and in this one, the first of the really long books, she certainly has plenty going on. The main plot appears to be the challenges of the Triwizard Tournament, but there's also the Yule Ball and the Scooby mystery ("I would have got away with it, too, if it weren't for you meddling kids!"). Behind it all, the series plot, the return of the Dark Lord, lurks, signaled by the prologue and referred to in flashes throughout before climaxing near the end with a significant plot turn. All of these kept me reading and moving from plot point to plot point, and I didn't feel that it was overpadded or bloated, despite its much greater size.

As I write, I'm already reading the next, and thoroughly loathing Umbridge. I have to say for Rowling, she doesn't just do one flavour of a type of character. Whether it's "strong woman", "unpleasant woman", "borderline nutter", "bully", "hero", "comic relief", "mentor"... there are multiple examples of each of these, and they're not interchangeable. It shows a depth of observation that you don't always see in authors, and it's part of what I enjoy about these books.

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Thursday 17 October 2013

Review: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

(The Harry Potter series re-read continues.)

After a slightly disappointing second book, the third book in the series comes back much stronger, with more action and tension, sustained well throughout. Admittedly, the author tries a little too hard for a little too long to keep us believing the wrong thing about the eponymous prisoner, but when the switch is finally flipped, we get to learn a bit more about Harry's father and his days at Hogwarts, casting an important sidelight on Harry himself.

I agree with Snape that Harry is incredibly irresponsible in his choices, something which is a problem for the series overall. Because he's the Chosen One, he gets away with being stupid, stubborn, pouty, dramatic and undisciplined for far too long (well into Book 5 or 6, if I recall correctly), and while it ramps up the tension, it reduces both his believability and likeability. Snape is the designated lampshade hanger/frustrated-audience mouthpiece for this annoyance.

(A minor odd thing while I think of it: If Lupin had only just been appointed as DADA teacher, why did his case say "Professor" in peeling letters?)

I don't think I'd reread this since I saw the film, and I was struck by how much the film version differed. No Quidditch, and the whole time-turner sequence was notably different. Film Hermione is much stronger than Book Hermione, not least because she gets one of Book Ron's brave lines about having to go through him/her to get to Harry. Book Hermione is a bit wimpy and panicky, in fact, which is a pity.

The series arc, the return of the Dark Lord, isn't advanced much in this book (the next more than makes up for that, of course), and yet it manages to be suspenseful and exciting anyway - partly through the phantom menace of crazy Sirius Black, but there's also the real menace of the Dementors. This book also introduces the theme, which grows much stronger later in the series, especially in Order of the Phoenix, of corrupt and incompetent government endangering and harming those it claims to protect. Well done, Ms Rowling, especially as this book came out in 2000, at least a year before the big-time security theatre really got started. The best bits of this series are like thrillers, and political thrillers at that, cleverly disguised as fantasy books for kids.

The next book's the first of the chihuahua-crushers. Now we're getting serious. There are still some lovely touches of humour here, though, for example when Snape pulls a Christmas cracker and gets a hat like the one that Neville's grandmother wears. Humour, snark, and practical jokes abound in these books, even among the very dark moments, and they're all the better for it.

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Monday 14 October 2013

Review: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I'm rereading the series, after several years, paying closer attention now to what J.K. Rowling is doing as a writer. I remembered this as not being one of the stronger books, and the reread confirmed that at least partially.

It's a book of two parts (not halves; the first is, roughly, three-quarters of the book, I think). Part one is rather lost in relative mundanity, inasmuch as Hogwarts can be mundane, interspersed with bits of the Big Mystery. Part two, the descent into the Chamber of Secrets itself, is fully as dark, scary and action-packed as the later parts of the series.

If Part 1 had been either shorter or more interesting, this would have been a four-star book for me. Book 1 gets away with a lot of stuff about Quidditch and classes and minor rivalries and feasts because it's introducing the world, and it's all new and wonderful, but Book 2 doesn't have that advantage, and it feels a bit slow. It's also doing a lot of setup for later books, so there are threads that don't go anywhere much within this book but are significant later.

Book 2 of a series is always a tricky one to write, and Rowling has done a fair, but not amazing, job here.

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Friday 11 October 2013

Review: Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone
Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone by J.K. Rowling

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In theory, I should hate this book.

It has a Chosen One and a Dark Lord, for goodness' sake, which is a trope that's been so driven into the ground you can barely see the top of it. The worldbuilding is whimsical and absurd. Half the moments of progress for the protagonist involve luck or coincidence. The heroes are 11 years old and excessively competent. It starts with a prologue (not labelled as such, but it is) all about the dull and ordinary lives of some unpleasant people who aren't even the protagonists.

So why do so many people love it? Why do I love it? Why do we even seek out badly-written fanfiction of it in order to get more?

Here's what I think. On the flip side of the whimsy is a powerful sense of wonder. Harry's dull suburban life at the start is replaced by the wizarding world, which is full of life and colour and fun - and risk and adventure, too. It's exactly that prologue-of-mundanity that sets us up for the world to open out like a tropical flower as Harry and Hagrid enter Diagon Alley, and later Hogwarts. The wizarding world is intense, it's a place where things matter and great issues are at stake, like high school only much more so.

I used to think of J.K. Rowling's great strength as being plotting, because she weaves plots and subplots together so competently. Every book has them: Who will win the House Cup? Who will win at Quidditch? How will the latest Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher be nobbled? Will Harry get caught sneaking round and punished? Will he find out about the mysterious thing? What new method of transport will be used? What will Malfoy plot, and how will he be foiled, and will his father hear about this? Later on, who will snog whom, and will it last, and who else will be jealous? Who will be killed? Will Neville do something courageous and/or stupid?

Now, I look at it in a slightly different way. What Rowling is so very good at is raising questions, like the ones I've just posed, and giving us reasons to care about the answers. Then she staggers questions and answers so that we keep on having a reason to read on.

Very often, the reason we care is that the characters care, and we identify with the characters. Her most important characters are outsiders: Harry, raised by abusive foster parents without knowledge of his heritage; Hermione, too smart to be popular; Ron, from a family without much money or status; Neville, raised by his grandmother and a bit of a nebbish; Luna, eccentric as a brush; even Snape, greasy, bullied, unlucky in love. We see how they're underdogs, and we cheer for the underdogs as they strive and struggle and triumph (and sometimes fail, and pay the cost, and keep fighting anyway).

Her characters have distinct voices. Hagrid's is the most distinctive on the page, but every one of them sounds different, from sarcastic Harry to hoity-toity Hermione to rough-hewn Ron to dreamy Luna. Having seen the films, of course, helps, but even in text, the voices are clear and distinct. A few of the background characters might be interchangeable, but even then, you'd never confuse Seamus with Dean, for example.

And the characters matter to each other. Their relationships, good or bad, have power. They answer the questions together, and those relationships help and hinder and change and develop as they do so.

Not everything about the series, or the writing, is as good as it could be. There are parts you don't want to think too hard about, and sentences that don't bear close inspection. Overall, though, we see relatable characters with important connections to one another, solving multiple overlapping problems that they care about in a world that's vigorous, fresh and alive, and that's what made the author richer than the Queen.

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Monday 7 October 2013

Review: The Republic of Thieves

The Republic of Thieves
The Republic of Thieves by Scott Lynch

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a book I (and many others) have been waiting for literally for years. The author had some tough personal times, involving severe depression, and the series was put on hold as a result. Now it's back, though, and when I saw on Netgalley that I could get a pre-publication copy for review, I jumped on it.

Why do I like this series so much? On the face of it, it's not my kind of thing. The characters are lawbreakers in a cruel and unjust sword-and-sorcery world, foul-mouthed, and continuously abused by their author. It's like someone took Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser and turned everything up to 11 (and I'm not a big fan of those books at all).

I think it's partly because Locke Lamora, the protagonist, is so hapless I can't help being on his side. It's partly because I do love a trickster story, and Lamora is a classic trickster, not only in his cleverness but also in the way his cleverness often ends up getting him into horrible, horrible trouble, and then out again, and then in again, and then out again...

It's partly, too, because it's just so very well written. Smooth, well-paced, not a wasted incident over the whole long book. Everything connects to something else. In this book, two stories are interweaved in two different time periods with some of the same characters, and they throw light on each other in a way that's wonderful to watch.

Because it's been so long since the last book, I can't remember for sure if the previous two books also do that. In fact, I can't remember the previous two books particularly well at all, in terms of actual incidents. This was a slight drawback, since this book keeps making callbacks to those earlier incidents and I didn't remember what they were talking about, but I still enjoyed it as almost a standalone. It would be worth re-reading the previous books immediately before this one, though.

You can tell a book by an author who's suffered, and knowing that Lynch has struggled with depression adds extra emotional resonance to some of the early scenes in which Locke's friend upbraids him for wanting to give up and die. The characters have powerful emotions, great hopes and great triumphs and great disappointments, without ever seeming theatrical or over-dramatic.

One minor negative for me was the worldbuilding, or comparative lack thereof. It's a fairly typical sword-and-sorcery setting, feeling late-medieval/early-renaissance (though without guns), with Italian-style city-states that remember the fallen Empire. There are important cultural differences between the city-states (at least, they're important to the inhabitants), and there are a few cultural referents that are made up, but a lot of the world, the culture and the language is just taken whole-cloth or minimally altered from our own world, including expressions like "you could hear a pin drop". I'm not going to call that lazy worldbuilding (nothing about this book is lazy); it's a particular approach, which trades requiring a bit of extra suspension of disbelief from those like me who notice such things against not letting a lot of unfamiliarity in the worldbuilding distract most readers from the story being told.

Overall verdict: this was worth the wait, and I hope the next one is well underway.

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Tuesday 1 October 2013

Review: The Whirlwind in the Thorn Tree

The Whirlwind in the Thorn Tree
The Whirlwind in the Thorn Tree by S.A. Hunt

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Let's start with the disclaimers. I know the author on Google+, which is why I read the book. I'd picked it up on a free promotion, and when I realised I didn't have the up-to-date version, he kindly sent me his latest build. We've corresponded about some questions I had (which he cleared up, so they won't appear in this review), and I'll be sending him some more notes too. Based on his response to me so far, many of the issues I identify may well be fixed soon, so there may be things I mention below that are no longer problems in the later version that you buy (because I hope you do buy it).

I actually started reading this book twice. The first time, I got through the part where the protagonist/narrator gets back from deployment in Afghanistan, and his wife has left him, and then the phone rings and his mother tells him his father's died... and I stopped, because I thought it was going to be too dark and tragic for my taste.

Then I kept reading Sam's posts on G+, and realised that he's a very accomplished writer, and decided that I did want to read it after all. And, in fact, after that second shoe drops, apart from the scene where people are being dragged down to be consumed by an evil god it's mostly not that distressing, despite the "dark fantasy" label.

When I say "very accomplished writer", I mean that he has a feel and a skill for language that's unusual in the indie writers I read. His prose is not without flaws, though. He's over-fond of the semicolon, his imagery can shade towards the purple and, sometimes, the incoherent, and he does the Steven Donaldson thing of dropping vocabulary words every few pages, which, taken all together, comes across to me as maybe trying too hard.

Unfortunately, too, the words don't always mean what he seems to think they mean, and occasionally mean the opposite. He describes two characters as having "reedy" voices, for example. From context, he means big, booming voices, but "reedy" means thin and weak. "Sojourn" is twice used to mean "journey", but it means staying in one place (that's a common error).

Then there are the florid descriptions which leave me unable to imagine what's being described, like "a black frock coat swarthy with curly pinstriping". If it's black, it's already swarthy, and what on earth would "curly pinstriping" look like?

Very few people have the vocabulary to pull this kind of writing off, and even those who do, I think probably shouldn't attempt it. I know it's a classic way of writing fantasy, but I find it distancing even when done well, and annoying when done badly. Here, it's not done terribly, but it could be done better. It's possible (though difficult) to write lucid, straightforward prose that's also beautiful and evocative. Emma Bull does it, Ursula Le Guin does it, and I wish more genre writers did.

When we come to characters, there's some good news. The protagonist/narrator is based on the author, but he is definitely not Gary Stu. He's in poor physical and emotional shape, he gets scared, he freaks out. Things don't fall into his lap; he struggles, he suffers. He makes meaningful decisions, he's loyal to his friends. I'm happy with him as a character.

The secondary characters are not as clearly drawn. In particular, the minor characters in the other world I found difficult to separate in some cases, or remember who was who, perhaps because a lot of them are introduced in a short span of time. I'm sure they'll gain depth in the second book.

The premise is interesting. The main character's father is a well-known fantasy author, and it turns out that he wasn't making up his other world; he'd lived there, and was more a biographer than a novelist. The protagonist goes to the other world and becomes involved in defending it, and by extension our world, from other-dimensional villains.

It's a good premise. Portal fantasy is out of fashion, for some odd reason, but I've always liked it, and of course the fictional-worlds-are-real trope is a popular one (see Jasper Fforde for perhaps the best-known of many examples). I think the author does it justice, though with a couple of reservations which I'll mention next. He also does a nice job of including quotations from the father's books, which are in a subtly different style, though I didn't always see the relevance of them to the chapters they preceded.

I wasn't that happy with the worldbuilding. The narrator says that "there are very few analogs between Earth and Destin when it comes to culture", but there totally are. Destin is basically a mashup of classic swords-and-sorcery fantasy with the Old West, and the two elements don't blend well. Shields and sixguns. Characters who wear doublets and jeans. Yes, those are actual examples. It didn't work that well for me, technologically or historically. Or linguistically; I have a degree in English language, so I know how contingent and random the development of the English language was, and having another world in which people speak a version of it is unlikely on the face of it (though I'm willing to give it the Trope Pass, reluctantly, so that we don't have to struggle with language learning and translation to the detriment of the story).

The big, all-too-common worldbuilding gaffe, though, is this. One of the characters, an Earth person who's familiar with the other world from reading the books, says at one point, "There's no Christ. No Bible. Why would there be a Christmas?" And then roughly a thousand words later there's a minor character called Joshua. I understand why authors don't want the Christian religion in their books, but if you're going to take it out, take it all out. (The thing is, it's so entwined in our culture, to a degree that most people are unconscious of, that unless you base your books on a non-Western culture, you can't take it all out. This is an enduring problem of fantasy worldbuilding.)

Anyway, so much for the world. What about the plot? This is the first of an epic fantasy series, and as is often the case with such series, it's not a complete story in itself but an introduction to the world and the characters and the situation. That's not to say that nothing happens, by any means, but there's more a sense of beginning at the end than there is a sense of ending, if that makes any sense. Thinking back on my experience of reading it, I remember more explanation and exploration than I do action, though there are certainly several well-written action sequences, spaced well throughout.

One of the important questions to ask, when talking about plot, is "What do the characters want? Do they strive for it?" What the characters want is reasonably clear. The main character, Ross, wants to investigate the mystery, possibly avenge his father's death, and rescue and defend his friends. His friends want to visit the world of the books they loved growing up - and this weaker motivation leaves them as weaker, less interesting characters in this book, though they'll no doubt strengthen in future books thanks to the revelations towards the end of this one. Stakes are both cosmic and personal, which is a strong combination, and shows promise for the series.

Overall, this is definitely an above-average first novel, though for me it has some (non-fatal) issues. With more discipline applied to the language, and better integration of the different elements of the worldbuilding, I can see this becoming a classic series in the future.

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Saturday 28 September 2013

Review: Torrent

Torrent by Lindsay Buroker

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

An excellent beginning to a new series from one of my favourite authors.

I enjoy nerdy, awkward characters, and we have an abundance of them here. The skinny Star Trek fan, the would-be Indiana Jones (complete with bullwhip, which turns out to be surprisingly useful), even the tennis star, sidelined by injury, whose awkwardness comes from having focussed so much on her sport that she doesn't know much about anything else. They're young, they're enthusiastic, they're curious to the point of incautious (more or less the Scooby Gang, complete with vanagon, though without any Great Danes), they're short of money, and when the chips are down they're determined and courageous. At least, the narrator, Delia, is. The other two are maybe a little less so, though they show potential.

As a big fan of the author's Emperor's Edge series, I couldn't help noticing similarities. Delia and Amaranthe (the protagonist of EE) both have emergent leadership qualities. The seeming magic in both series is mixed up with seeming aliens (it's not yet clear in this series whether it's really magic or they're really aliens, or both). There are hard-to-kill monsters and underwater caverns.

What's different is that this story is set in our contemporary world and told in first person. It's (broadly speaking) urban fantasy, rather than secondary-world steampunk fantasy. That's one of my personal favourite genres to read, more so than steampunk, if anything, and I thoroughly enjoyed this.

There were a few minor editing issues, but it's an improvement on the EE books in that respect, as well.

Lindsay Buroker is an experienced series author, and she does a good job of setting up some things to be resolved later (to keep us interested in reading the series), while also giving us a complete story with a resolution. She ties the characters together well, gives them clear, strong motivations and distinct personalities, and rubs those personalities together entertainingly.

I'm very much looking forward to more in this series.

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Saturday 21 September 2013

Review: Constellation Games

Constellation Games
Constellation Games by Leonard Richardson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a book that's brilliant enough that I don't always get it, whether because I miss some of the references or because I'm just not thinking at the level of the author. It's the kind of book I want to read again sometime to see what else I can get out of it.

It's true speculative fiction. What I mean by that is that it isn't just another genre sausage, with the same basic shape and contents as all the other sausages in that genre; it actually has a new angle. This is first contact as seen through the eyes of a video game developer and reviewer who attempts to understand the aliens by playing their games.

The Constellation, the peaceful alien civilisation that contacts Earth in 2012, is a post-scarcity anarchy (fans of Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross will know what that is, and probably enjoy this book a lot). They're pleased to discover that Earth is not another of the planets where a civilisation has destroyed itself, leaving only fossils, since this sad fate is more common than the survival scenario. They'd like to keep it that way, but humans are irrational and get upset when the aliens try to help with things like global climate change.

The story is told largely via a series of documents, mostly blog posts, but there are also IM conversations and a few other formats. Some of the short chapters, though, are headed "Real Life" and a date, and since they're written in almost the same style as the blog posts, I did often find myself checking back at the beginning of the chapter I'd just finished to see if it was a blog post (and hence public, or at least circulated to the narrator's friends) or not. That's important, since as the story goes on, the blog posts contain more and more lies for various reasons. Mostly, these have to do with the narrator protecting himself or someone else.

The language has some wonderful moments. Not only the slightly distorted English of the aliens, but some of the narrator's phrases. "He twisted some vowels into balloon animals," for example, as a description of an alien speaking an historical language of his race. (The several alien races, by the way, are referred to by various words that different human groups use to mean "alien"; besides the Aliens, there are Auslanders, Gaijin, Farang....) There are also some lovely moments of commentary on our society. "As if we'd all gotten together and agreed to do whatever it said on signs," the narrator observes when a minor official glares at him for not doing something posted on a sign. There's a strong thread of anti-authoritarianism, if you hadn't already picked that up (also, as one of the aliens observes, the narrator swears a lot).

The references to technology and video games are a mixture of real-life and invented. There's a character called Dana Light who is more or less a Lana Croft, for example, but not exactly. That's helpful for someone like me, who hasn't played a great many video games, because if a lot of the point depended on intricate knowledge of the trivia of popular culture (as in, for example, Ready Player One), I would have enjoyed it a lot less than I did. Instead, it's about the phenomenon of gaming and how it expresses and shapes culture and psychology, and using that as a lens to examine things about culture and psychology.

The editing could have been better. The book deserved for it to be better, in fact. Based on this and on another book I've read from Candlemark & Gleam, the small press that published it, what you get from C&G is developmental editing on your high-concept book, rather than meticulous proofreading and copyediting. What the customer gets is probably pretty much what comes out of the author's word processor. In the case of the other book, that included a lot of homonym errors. In the case of this one, it means a number of what are basically typesetting mistakes (missed words, misspellings, lost quotation marks, one instance of an inconsistent time in a sequence of tweets), plus a few apostrophes missing in phrases like "Ten mortgages worth of signatures" or misplaced in words like "childrens'". It's a long way from terrible, but I wish it had that extra polish.

Between the less-than-flawless proofreading and the slight unlikeliness of some of the aliens, this isn't a perfect book, but it is an excellent one, funny, thought-provoking, original and possessing a rare depth, and that is why I've given it five stars.

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Tuesday 17 September 2013

Review: Salamander

Salamander by David D. Friedman

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A brilliant young woman works with her mentor, a clever but unworldly theoritician of magic, to foil dynastic plots and ensure that a powerful new way of doing magic doesn't fall into the wrong hands.

Overall, I enjoyed this. I'm a fan of the growing "magic school" subgenre, I like clever protagonists, and the writing was reasonably competent.

I say "reasonably" competent because, while the author mostly knows where to put his commas, he occasionally gets apostrophes wrong with plural nouns ("magister's wing" when there's more than one magister, for example). He's also sloppy with his quotation marks. These are minor issues, though, given that I didn't notice any homonym errors, the bane of indie (and, increasingly, traditionally-published) books.

What I didn't like was the infodumping of theory of magic, literally in the form of lectures (both from faculty at the magic school and also from the clever young woman to her friends at lunchtime). Infodumps are dull at the best of times, and this particular author uses a dry dialogue style without contractions - which also leaves most of his characters sounding the same. Also, the first three chapters consist largely of these infodumps (at least, that's how it felt), and there were one or two more later in the book.

It's true that much of the content was relevant to the resolution of the plot later on, but there are better ways of presenting this background information than in big lecturing chunks.

I mentioned that the characters mostly sound similar (though one of them, a farmer's son, does drop words out of his sentences, which makes him distinctive). At least one of them, Edwin, also turns up without introduction or description and never seems to do much. The remainder, though, are distinct in their personalities and I found it easy to keep them straight in my head.

I picked this book up because the author talked about it in a comment on someone else's blog and it sounded interesting (yes, that does occasionally work, authors). It was good enough that I'd read another in what I assume will be a series, though I'm really hoping for less infodumping next time.

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Friday 13 September 2013

Review: The Pyrite War

The Pyrite War
The Pyrite War by Blake M. Petit

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Let me start out by saying that I'm a fan of Siegel City and its superheroes, having loved [b:Other People's Heroes|1792929|Other People's Heroes|Blake M. Petit||1791912], and I remain a fan after reading this book.

Let me continue by saying that it has definite flaws.

Firstly, the editing. Most of the errors I spotted (which I'll pass on, as I usually do, to the author so he can correct them if he wishes) were typos. Now, everyone makes typos, but there were a great many of them, about one per thousand words by my rough calculation. And then there were the errors which I wouldn't expect an author who's a former newspaper editor and a current English teacher to make: the excess apostrophe in the phrase "first things first" and a couple of other apostrophe errors; "diffuse" instead of "defuse", "crevasses" for "crevices" and "pouring over information" instead of "poring"; "may" used in past tense narration instead of "might"; a dangling participle. Characters' names are spelled inconsistently, as well, which is a surprisingly common mistake.

To me, one of the things that separates professional from amateur writing is whether the writer knows and consistently applies this rule: if someone is addressed by name or title in dialogue, there should be a comma before the term of address if it isn't at the beginning, and after the term of address if it isn't at the end. But we get "Mr. Ruston it's not like that" and similar breathless sentences. That's an error that never fails to jerk me out of the story and leave me shaking my head and sighing, the more so in this case, since the author should know better.

The book is set in 1939, but to me it lacks a sense of that time. It makes frequent reference to the looming threat of World War II, and mentions the Wizard of Oz movie (released 1938), but it's in the small details that it doesn't ring true: names, slang, social differences. A teenage boy describes himself as "freaked out" (an expression first used in the 1960s), and the narrator uses "warm fuzzy" (1970s). A socket on a radio is called a "port". There's a reference to military body armour, which, while it did exist at the time, was too bulky to be practical and wasn't used in the field. A young female superhero wears a "cheerleader-style skirt" of a type not used in cheerleading until the 1970s. Five minutes after people stare at a black couple emerging from a car with white people, they are sitting "shoulder to shoulder" at a soda fountain and nobody bats an eye. There are characters called Samantha and Jason, both common names now, but rare before the 1960s. Again, individually minor errors, but collectively they destroyed the sense of authenticity of the time period for me. None of this is hard to check, either, with Google search, Ngram Viewer (which shows when phrases began to be used), and You just have to be aware enough to think of checking it.

One more category of complaint, story flaws, and then I'll start praising it. There's a continous sequence in which we somehow go from "people have just arrived" to "they've been here three days" with no transition (during which the narration briefly drops into third person from the first person that it uses everywhere else).

That's just inattentive rewriting. What's more serious, and harder to fix, is that a couple of times there's something in the story that to me is clearly there for plot purposes, and not because it makes any sense whatsoever. The first one is that the mad scientist can't miniaturize radio transmitters, but can miniaturize a recording device (so that the device can be destroyed and the heroes are left with no evidence, although since the villain didn't actually say anything clearly incriminating I don't see what difference it makes). Given both the real technology of the time and the technology that the same scientist has already used at that point of the story, this is pretty much nonsense.

The other flaw, the biggest in my mind, is near the end, where a group of the heroes does something that anyone can see is completely idiotic, with tissue-thin justification, apparently solely in order to allow the tension to be ramped up. Of that, I am not a fan.

What I am a fan of is how Petit plays with superhero tropes, without ever going too over-the-top in the winks and hat-tips. The premise is "What if Superman was not just a dick, but actually a homicidal lunatic pretending to be a hero?" The powers of the supers are a combination of nods to the classics and fresh ideas (as in Other People's Heroes). The actual story, apart from a couple of stumbles which I noted above, is well-paced, well-plotted and satisfying. The author does a fine job of making the stakes both important to the world at large and personal to the narrator, and I enjoyed the narrator's voice and the voices of several other characters (though I'll admit that a couple of the minor characters blurred together for me, and I had a hard time remembering which was which).

Because of those strengths, and because there aren't enough good supers books, I'm giving this four stars despite its flaws. Consider it three and a half rounded up.

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Wednesday 11 September 2013

Review: Gooseberry Bluff Community College of Magic: The Thirteenth Rib

Gooseberry Bluff Community College of Magic: The Thirteenth Rib
Gooseberry Bluff Community College of Magic: The Thirteenth Rib by David J. Schwartz

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

First, let me say: this is one of the best-edited books I have read for some time, and that was why I bought it, despite some warnings in the reviews I read about a non-conclusive ending. I thought I could at least enjoy the ride to that ending, and I was right. I spotted four extremely minor errors, two of them typos and two of them usage issues, which is excellent.

However, the ending itself didn't disappoint me either. Certainly, not everything is resolved, but to me, that's good news; it implies sequels, and I want to read more in this setting.

The book has been described as "Harry Potter meets X-Files", which is almost completely inaccurate. Yes, it involves a college of magic and a federal agent investigating the uncanny, but that's the extent of the resemblance to either of those franchises. The college is mostly a backdrop, and mostly (apart from the fact that magic is taught there) a standard American college. The agent is not a student there, but a teacher. She's nothing like Mulder or Scully, and her case doesn't have an X-Files vibe either, to me at least.

So that's what it isn't. What is it?

It's a well-written urban fantasy/alternative history, in a world where Aleister Crowley cleaned up his act, had real magic, and deployed demons against the Japanese and Germans to end World War II. It's set in the present day, and the main character is a federal agent in magical law enforcement. Her own magical skills are not great, but she can read auras, which mostly makes up for her neurological inability to recognise faces.

Yes, the protagonist is disabled. She's also black and a woman. Several other characters are bisexual or gay, and one is genderqueer. If all of that bothers you for some reason, don't read it, but personally I didn't notice any of the soapboxing that one reviewer on Amazon complained about.

Seanan McGuire had a great answer to a reader who complained "Why did you make X character gay when it made no difference to the story?" Her reply was to the effect that she didn't "make" him gay, he was gay, and it didn't have to be significant to the story any more than someone being straight. There are gay people. They're people. You'll meet them at some point, and they have all the characteristics of other people. Their sexual orientation is just one thing about them, and if they're characters in a story, that doesn't have to be what the story is about.

If this book had a weakness, for me, it was that the magic system didn't come across as having been completely worked out (so there's another parallel to Harry Potter, then). It was used more or less as a convenience. The magic theory lectures didn't seem to translate into plot points. Sometimes magic just replaced technology, like the crystals which were cellphones (though at one point the author apparently slips and mentions a telephone). Sometimes it did things that the plot needed. It didn't, to me, give the impression of having been planned out in advance, in detail, with all the implications for how it would change society taken into consideration. That's extremely hard to do, by the way, and it's not like magic was used as a deus ex machina on every page. It caused as many problems as it solved, too, so points for that.

When I was looking at the author's other books, I saw that he's done a supers book which I looked at a while back and didn't get because the sample didn't quite hook me. I think I might take another look at it, having read this one, because overall I'm impressed.

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