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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