Sunday 27 January 2013

Review: Timekeeper

Timekeeper by Heather Albano

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I enjoyed the author's previous book [b:Timepiece|12860065|Timepiece|Heather Albano||18011900] a great deal, so I was building up high expectations for this one. Unfortunately, for me it never quite caught fire, even in the scene where the house literally caught fire.

Part of the issue may have been with the pacing. There were long stretches of reflection in between scenes of relatively little action.

Breaking it down into my four reviewing categories:

1. Language. It was competently written, though clogged with verbosity a couple of times. I realize that this was partly an attempt to convey a period feel (or an homage to [b:Frankenstein|18490|Frankenstein|Mary Shelley||4836639]), but I found it dragged. The editing is also a touch rough, though I've read much, much, much worse (including in at least four books from HarperCollins). There were a couple of incorrect homophones ("errant nonsense" for "arrant nonsense", and "affect" where it should have been "effect"), but most of the errors were missing or misplaced words in sentences. It was clear enough what they meant, but the effect (not affect) was to give an impression that the writing was rushed and sloppy. I know this wasn't the case, because I've been following the author's blog and she has worked hard over a long period on this book, but there it is. Language: 3 stars.

2. Plot. I didn't have quite the sense of intricacy from the plot this time, perhaps because there was a lot less time traveling than in the previous book. Instead, there were flashbacks to how secondary characters ended up doing what they were doing, interspersed between a lot of scenes in which the main characters agonized over what they should do next to fix what they'd done wrong last time. There was a theme about when one should take decisive action and when one should think things through, and the balance was definitely towards the latter. Although the stakes were high, this held the characters back from action more than it propelled them towards it. Plot: 3 stars.

3. Characters. We got to meet alternate versions of some characters from the previous book, and they were different enough to be interesting, though one was less likable and the other wasn't likable in either book. We also met some people who had brief appearances or were mentioned in the other book, and I found them appealing and interesting. Unfortunately, though, I didn't feel that the main characters developed all that much this time. Their relationship became spoken rather than unspoken, but that was almost a formality by that point.

The themes of giving women their independence and of getting people to change their actions by talking candidly like sensible adults were well chosen, I thought, and well demonstrated by the characters. I'll give this section 4 stars.

4. Setting. Heather Albano takes a great deal of trouble over her research, and it shows. The historical details felt real without a lot of infodumping, and were concisely and naturally conveyed. The different feel of the different versions of London came through well, I thought, and the various settings were made clearly distinct from one another with a minimum of description. Four stars for the setting.

If you've been keeping track and doing the mental arithmetic, you'll see that I've arrived at 3.5 stars, which is about where I ended up as an overall score. I didn't round it up to 4 because I just didn't quite feel it was a 4-star book. With better editing and tighter pacing, I think it would have been.

Now, I'm aware that I've frequently said that I liked the first book in part because it wasn't the usual style of steampunk, where the author hotglues brass gears to a top hat and sticks it on Indiana Jones. It was more thoughtful than that, better researched, and the characters had more depth and realism. But this, I think, has gone just a couple of steps too far in the other direction, and needed more action to be the book I was hoping for.

View all my reviews

Friday 25 January 2013

Review: Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore
Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I found this via I09's list of best science fiction and fantasy books of 2012, which is funny, because it really isn't either. What it is, though, is a book for people who love science fiction and fantasy and books and technology. It reminds me of William Gibson's recent work, not because it's dystopian (it isn't, not even slightly), but because it's like science fiction set in the present.

It's also beautifully written. I don't read "literary fiction". I'm a genre snob. But if this is literary fiction, then I like it. The metaphors and turns of phrase are wonderful. "Feeding hours like dry twigs into the fire," the author writes. He's conscious of language. "Moffat’s prose is fine: clear and steady, with just enough sweeping statements about destiny and dragons to keep things well inflated," he says, describing the fictional fantasy novels which play such an important role in the plot, and it could almost be a description of his own writing. He also has semicolons, and he knows how to use them.

There's humour that comes from an affectionate, almost loving, way of seeing the absurdity of the world, and from masterfully chosen, mostly technological juxtapositions. "The thinnest tendrils of dawn are creeping in from the east. People in New York are softly starting to tweet." Later, the protagonist's Googler girlfriend buys a New York Times "but couldn’t figure out how to operate it".

I only spotted a single typo ("left" instead of "loft"), and that level of professionalism is vanishingly rare.

So: language, 5 stars. I wish every other book I've read recently was written more like this one.

Plot, then. The plot is beautifully woven. Not a Chekhov's gun is left unfired. There are about 20 named characters, and virtually all of them, even most of the minor ones, get to participate in the great wrap-up of the epilogue. It's missing one element of the classic happy ending, but that feels absolutely right, and it's better than a happy ending: it's a beautiful ending. It's a rich, wonderful ending. I've often been disappointed by weak endings to books I've otherwise enjoyed, but this is one of my favourite endings of any book I can think of. Five stars for plot, even if the protagonist's ultimate triumph is built on an unlikely mistake earlier in the book, and even if a couple of the events are also unlikely (like Google allowing a relatively minor project to take all their server time for three seconds).

And partway through it turns into a heist novel! I love heist novels.

Characters. I liked the main character almost immediately. He's having a somewhat difficult time, but he has perspective and wry humour about it, and he doesn't whine. He's capable of admiring and respecting other people greatly, including intelligent, strong women: "I am really into the kind of girl you can impress with a prototype," he says. His love for his eccentric, elderly mentor is an important part of what drives the plot.

The other characters are all quirky without being self-conscious about it, all (seen through the protagonist's eyes) people of skill and worth and, in general, goodwill. I loved every one of them. Five stars and at least three cheers for the characters.

Finally, setting. The book takes place in some wonderfully bizarre places: a tall, narrow bookstore full of mysterious volumes, an underground cavern of cultish scholarship, a textile museum, a storage unit for museum artifacts in the dryness of Nevada where motorized shelves move constantly in a stately dance. That last was totally unlikely. Wouldn't you want to keep valuable, rare items still? And yet it the feel of it was just right, much more so than a more realistic, static building would have been.

Even the protagonist's apartment gradually fills with his artist roommate's strange and wonderful miniature city.

You could say that the setting is the real world, but you'd be wrong. Aldus Manutius existed, but his friend Gerritszoon didn't, and Gerritszoon's font isn't on every electronic device, because it doesn't exist either. Nor, presumably, does the cult of scholars known as the Unbroken Spine. I have no idea whether Google really works the way it's described, but it wouldn't surprise me at all to hear that it doesn't. And there's one very minor mistake that I know is a mistake: what the main character calls "middleware" is not what middleware actually is.

No, this setting isn't the real world. It's better. Apart from anything else, it has the epic fantasy novels of Moffat in it.

Five stars for the setting as well, making it a perfect 25 for this book. Oh, there are things I've quibbled about, but none of them significantly diminished my enjoyment. I'll be looking for more of Robin Sloan's books. I hope they're like this one.

View all my reviews

Sunday 13 January 2013

Review: Crucible of Gold

Crucible of Gold
Crucible of Gold by Naomi Novik

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As soon as I discovered the Temeraire series, I read all the books that were then available, so I was delighted to see a new volume after a gap of several years.

It suffers from the problem of long-running series that there is now a lot of backstory, and with the gap aforementioned, I spent the first three chapters trying to remember who all these people were and why they were arguing. It's a tribute to the author that I remembered most of them, and a good many of the key preceding events, by the end of the book.

A quick "the story so far" and/or a list of characters would make it easier to get back in, though.

Breaking down my rating, since different books are good for different reasons:

Language/prose style: 4 stars. The language gives an authentic period feel, without being so authentic that it's unnecessarily hard to read. There is an odd thing which I noticed a couple of times, in which we get what at first sounds like Lawrence's interior monologue (written in free indirect speech, beginning with some phrase like "Lawrence wondered"), and then someone answers him and it becomes clear that he was speaking at least some of these thoughts aloud. It may well be how novels were written in the early 19th century. I found it a little disorienting, though.

Plot: 5 stars. Reading through, I realized that one of the things Naomi Novik does exceptionally well is put her characters in situations in which there is no clear solution to their problem that is both moral and easy to carry out. Every option is either morally questionable or costly or both. This happens again and again, and keeps the tension up and showcases the strong moral character of Lawrence, who will put his opposition to slavery ahead of his personal interests and even the interests of his country.

Character: 3.5 stars. As I've already mentioned, the characters are memorable, even though there are so many, and the dragons not less than the humans. The dragons' lack of sophistication when it comes to human concerns is occasionally, I felt, a little overplayed. It's hard to sustain naive characters long-term without their naiveté becoming annoying, and Temeraire, for me, is starting to cross that line. However, his naiveté and Iskierka's selfish boastfulness and willfulness do provide plenty of fuel for plot complications.

I could stand to see more character development. I don't feel that the characters changed very much in this volume, certainly not compared to the previous volumes.

Setting: 4 stars. I enjoy the world in which dragons (and other mythical megafauna like bunyips and sea serpents) exist, and their influence on history, despite large amounts of implausibility. Such a very alternate world would be unlikely to have produced the same Napoleon and the same Napoleonic wars, for example, and the amount of food such large creatures as the dragons would need to consume just to stay alive, let alone fly for days, is thoroughly fudged, but I forgive all that because of the fascinating possibilities it produces. Even though the population of South America is being devastated by European illnesses, as did indeed happen historically, it doesn't enable the Spanish to conquer them because of the presence of the dragons. Likewise with Africa, and the Tswana and the Inca Empire make for an interesting dynamic in a world less dominated by Europe than our own.

Overall, a good entry to an excellent series, and proof that not every traditionally-published book has to be the same-old same-old. Alternate history Napoleonic wars with dragons? Thank you, I believe I will.

View all my reviews

Movie Review: The Hobbit

I don't see many movies, especially in the theatres. Still haven't seen The Avengers, about which I hear almost exclusively good things. But a friend was visiting from overseas, and we decided to go and see The Hobbit.
I have to say, I had the Randy Jackson response. "Dogg, it was just OK for me, you know what I'm saying?"
I've come to the conclusion that I like Peter Jackson's Tolkien best when it's mainly Tolkien with very little Jackson. The other way round... not so good.
This is also one of those creative works where less would have been more. The movie was about two and three-quarter hours, and was a firmly three-star movie. If it had been trimmed to two hours, it might have been four stars. There may even be a five-star movie in there, but it's probably an hour and three-quarters long.
Length isn't the only problem, either. Take, for example, the scene with the trolls.
The book version of this scene establishes Bilbo as the trickster and rogue. It harks back to Jason throwing the stone among the dragon's-teeth warriors, to Clever Jack fooling giants, to Odysseus in the Cyclops' cave. The movie version doesn't have the same resonance. Tolkien's writing, despite its flaws, has tremendous power because he was well-read in classical literature and knew an archetype when he saw one. Messing with that made the scene fall flat for me, especially the Gandalf-ex-machina at the end. It's bad enough that Gandalf gets them out of the trees by summoning the eagles (Tolkien's mistake, not Jackson's). He shouldn't be taking Bilbo's first protagonist moment. Bilbo's arc is from a timid, conventional stay-at-home hobbit to an adventuring rogue, and this is his first pinch, where he has to rise to the challenge to save himself and his friends.
As for the scenes that are pure Jackson, they are basically ridiculous. Radagast's absurd rabbit-drawn sled that doesn't catch on something in the forest every two seconds, for example, and the Michael Bay moment (yes, I said it) where the dwarves and Gandalf fall on a wooden platform through hundreds of meters of goblin cave and emerge completely unscathed, protected by their character armour from the laws of physics.
There was an awful lot of prologue before the story got going. The Old Bilbo and Frodo prologue was completely unnecessary. I can see including a prologue of the original fall of the Lonely Mountain. I can even see including the meeting of the White Council on screen, though again, Gandalf's lines about Bilbo giving him courage fell completely flat for me. Bilbo hasn't shown courage himself yet. And, while I think leaving the songs out of LOTR almost completely was the right decision, the Misty Mountains song has something to contribute to the emotional tone and the sense of who the dwarves are and what they've lost and how determined they are to regain it. (The dishwashing song, though, needed cutting.)
Here's what the movie leaves me with. It leaves me with profound skepticism that the other two, especially the middle one, will be good, and not overpadded like this one is. It leaves me wondering if Martin Freeman, who can do hapless like nobody's business, is also up to doing heroic. And it leaves me wanting a cut-down version that just tells Tolkien's story more-or-less as written, minus the silly bits (like the dishwashing song and the invention of the game of golf, both of which were in the movie) and with no added silly bits (like Radagast and the Michael Bay platform fall).
TL; DR: Meh.

Wednesday 9 January 2013

Review: The Last Mage Guardian

The Last Mage Guardian
The Last Mage Guardian by Sabrina Chase

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A very high four stars for this well-written tale of a young woman who finds herself in charge of the magical defense of Europe, some years after a devastating war started by the French.

It's set in an alternate world, not fully steampunk but sufficiently steampunkish that Amazon suggested it to me because I'd read Lindsay Buroker. The date appears to be mid-to-late 19th century, from scattered clues. There are trains, but it's magic rather than technology that gets the emphasis. The North American continent appears to be called Atlantea, and the countries of Europe have different names, their cities have different spellings, and there are other geopolitical differences like the continuation of a separate country of Bretagne distinct from France (or Gaul). The most similar thing I've read is James Calbraith's [b:The Shadow of Black Wings|15755864|The Shadow of Black Wings (The Year of the Dragon, #1)|James Calbraith||21382847], though the history is closer to ours than it is in Calbraith.

Although there's a romance subplot between the two viewpoint characters, the emphasis is on the adventure and the magic, with a great boss battle at the end. Flooding cellar, explosions, collapsing masonry, levitation, it's all good stuff.

The editing (and writing) is fully as good as you'll find from any big publisher (and better than you'll often get from HarperCollins), and I'll have no hesitation in adding this to my Indie Books Worth Reading list on my website (

There doesn't appear to be a sequel yet, but this was published in the middle of last year, so I have hopes. I liked both the main characters, enjoyed the world, and was happy to accept the more cinematic parts of the story in their own terms.

I'll be taking a look at the author's other work, which is mostly science fiction that claims to be in the tradition of Lois McMaster Bujold. I'm a huge Bujold fan, and I approach that claim with a little skepticism, but this author does seem to have the skills to pull off a good military space opera.

View all my reviews

Saturday 5 January 2013

Review: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I don't give five stars out very often. I save them for books like this: beautifully and fluently told, with depth of character, setting and plot.

If I did ding it a star, it would be for the fact that I sometimes wasn't sure what was going on. I feel like I need to go back and read it again, because it had so many threads being subtly interwoven, and the young narrator was just a touch unreliable. But somehow or other, the author made the occasional apparently irrelevant infodump into part of the narrator's storytelling style, and not a fault. I wish I knew how she did that.

The young barbarian, who's been raised to do what's right, coming to the heart of the corrupt, cruel empire and becoming caught up in its politics is hardly a new idea (it's practically Epic Fantasy Plot #2), but it's rarely done so well. I felt the claustrophobic sense of the schemes of the imperial family closing in around the unfortunate young woman, leaving her seemingly without options, and yet she managed to remain a protagonist. I liked how she did it, too: she treated oppressed people decently and fairly. The fact that the people were gods was irrelevant to her decision to treat them that way, but not, of course, to the outcome.

For this is what you might call "theological fantasy", in which the gods are characters. Lois McMaster Bujold has done it equally well in [b:The Curse of Chalion|61886|The Curse of Chalion (Chalion, #1)|Lois McMaster Bujold||1129349], and maybe a touch better (for my taste) in [b:Paladin of Souls|61904|Paladin of Souls (Chalion, #2)|Lois McMaster Bujold||819610], but then Paladin of Souls wasn't her first novel (or even her twelfth). A debut novel this good definitely makes Jemisin someone to watch.

The main characters don't always act consistently, and in this they're like real people. The protagonist is capable of decisive action, of bouts of helpless weeping, of outraged compassion and of cruelty under the press of necessity. One of the gods is the god of change, another is a trickster, and they are unpredictable, as they should be.

The minor characters show less depth. The cruel cousin is only ever cruel. The drunkard cousin isn't just a drunkard, but he's not much more. The harsh old emperor is harsh and old and distant. A couple of the gods don't have much to them. The palace administrator is efficient, the creepy sorcerer is creepy. Not every character can have the same degree of depth, I suppose, and not everybody changes in the course of a story. These are minor quibbles.

I wasn't completely surprised by the resolution, but that's all right. It was a good resolution.

The next book in the series is definitely going on my reading list.

One thing about the ebook edition: there are some formatting issues, which from a major publishing house is disappointing. There are often spaces in the middle of words (sometimes after ligatures, but not always), and often missing spaces after italics (again, sometimes but not always). This is distracting in an otherwise excellent book.

View all my reviews

Thursday 3 January 2013

Review: A Different Witch

A Different Witch
A Different Witch by Debora Geary

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book points up something that annoys me slightly about Debora Geary's books in general. I enjoy the books, but I don't find the kids credible, especially Aervyn.

Given that the author has kids and I don't, I could be wrong, but the young witches seem to be wiser than the adult ones half the time, and more emotionally stable (despite their high-sugar diet). The thing that really gives me a credibility issue, though, is that they are able to do highly complex magic.

In this volume, Kenna, the one-year-old, whose brain is not developed enough to walk or talk, is able to cast a spell so complex that most of the adults can't figure out how she's doing it. Now, it seems silly to quibble over the brain science of magic when the physics is obviously impossible and it's part of the fantasy, but that's where my willing suspension of disbelief breaks.

Each Geary book is reliably the same. It's heartwarming. Nobody is malicious, there's a great deal of love and mutual respect, and people grow emotionally. In this book, we also get an insight into autism and Asperger's syndrome, which is fascinating, and reminded me of [b:The Speed of Dark|96063|The Speed of Dark|Elizabeth Moon||1128271] by Elizabeth Moon. I was emotionally moved a number of times, but I'm starting to find the kids a bit annoying.

View all my reviews