Saturday 27 December 2014

Review: The Just City

The Just City
The Just City by Jo Walton

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Utopias are a fascinating idea, and not to be undertaken lightly. Jo Walton here pulls off not only a book that works both as a novel of ideas and as a novel, but also an impressive feat of research and scholarship.

Let me first reemphasise that it completely works as a novel. The characters have depth, agency, growth, change, things they strive for and things they achieve. There are several viewpoint characters, whose plot arcs intersect, but the book opens in the viewpoint of Apollo, who is confused about why Daphne would rather be transformed into a tree than have sex with him. He decides to become incarnate in order to learn about "choice and equal significance", basically the idea that all thinking beings have agency and ought to have the opportunity to pursue agency, and that each person's choice is valuable. This becomes the major theme of the book, and as Apollo learns, so do a number of the other characters, who confront the same question from multiple different viewpoints.

That, by itself, would be a great story, but then there's the audacious setting. The gods, who are outside time, can move people around in time if they want, and Athene has decided to run an experiment. She's going to set up Plato's Republic at a time and place where no traces will later be left (because of the volcanic eruption that destroyed half of the island of Thera, before Plato's time, and gave rise to the legend of Atlantis, neatly looping round into the Republic again). And she's going to populate it first with "masters", scholars who, at some point in history, prayed to her to be part of establishing the Republic - many of whom are women, since Plato proposed female equality. Famous Neoplatonists and translators of Plato are gathered alongside more obscure devotees, and then they collect, again from various times, more than ten thousand (approximately)-ten-year-old children to form the population of the Republic. As these children grow to adulthood, the grand experiment must deal with conflict over means and ends, the fact that Plato didn't understand interpersonal relationships very well, and the rise to sentience of the robots that Athene has brought from the future to take the place of slaves.

And also with Sokrates, that kind, ugly, wise man, the gadfly, the teacher of Plato, who has been brought to the Just City (against his express wish) in order to teach the children rhetoric. The Republic wasn't his idea, he doesn't approve of it, and, in the end, he engages Athene in public debate over the rightness of the experiment, with remarkable results.

I'm no classical scholar - I have read Plato, but as a teenager, more than 30 years ago, and I don't remember much - so I can't speak to how accurate the research is, including the historical people. That's probably a good thing, because it means I can't nitpick any inaccuracies there may be. What I can say is that as a story, this is very good, and as a piece of thinking, it's even better than that. It touches on concerns of power, free will, informed consent, equality, and what is good and right to do in pursuit of a well-ordered society, and does so on levels that span from the intrapersonal through the interpersonal to the level of the state, and from multiple complementary angles. We end up with something much more like a sculpture than a painting, and a sculpture that repays close attention to its details, as well.

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Review: Children of Arkadia

Children of Arkadia
Children of Arkadia by M. Darusha Wehm

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Utopias stop working right around the time you add the people.

I know Darusha Wehm slightly on social media, since we're both Podiobooks authors and members of SpecFicNZ. She sent me a copy of this book directly when I mentioned to her that the version on Netgalley was protected by DRM and I couldn't get it on my Kindle.

I previously listened to part of Darusha's [b:Self Made|7726126|Self Made (Andersson Dexter, #1)|M. Darusha Wehm||10489905] on Podiobooks, but gave it up because it was moving too slowly for my taste, and the protagonist wasn't engaging to me. I'm glad I gave her work another chance with this one.

This still doesn't set out to be a fast-moving, plot-driven thrill ride, certainly - it's more of a novel of ideas, though the outright lecturing is kept to a minimum and done in a way that isn't infodumpy or dull. I found it enjoyable, and had no difficulty staying until the end. It's the story of a utopian experiment, set in a space habitat orbiting Jupiter, one of several set up by a trust to provide refuge for political activists and dissidents from what sounds like an increasingly dystopian and authoritarian Earth.

Rather than a single protagonist and a single through-line, it consists of overlapping plot arcs from a number of different points of view. The number of POVs, to me, came close to the line of being too many, but didn't cross it.

Through several generations, the story follows the society as it evolves to deal with the realities of its situation, and as those in power make compromises and mistakes which impact everyone. Among the themes are overt and covert power, keeping secrets from people "for their own good", requiring people to have children for the good of society, how a non-capitalist society might work (the politics of the refugees who form the centre of the colony are more or less those of the Occupy movement), and how a society deals with recognising people as citizens who have previously been regarded as subhuman (the artificial intelligences who help to run the colony).

I read Jo Walton's [b:The Just City|22055276|The Just City|Jo Walton||39841651] immediately afterwards, which happens to have many of the same themes and a similar setup, so I can't help but compare the two. To me, Walton writes a more successful book, because there's nothing extraneous in it, the themes are clearer, the conflicts stronger, and I didn't find myself falling out of suspension of disbelief at any point. That's not to say that Wehm's book is bad; it very much is not. However, it does have a couple of minor issues.

Mainly, the interlocking plot threads sometimes peter out without true resolution, or the conflicts resolve too easily. Early on, for example, there's a "free rider" problem. There's a technical issue preventing the production of as many bots as are needed to do all the work of setting up the colony, and so human volunteers are needed to help. However, part of the colony's idealistic charter is that nobody will be forced to work or directly compensated for doing so (no capitalists, corporatists or conservatives need apply); it's a Universal Basic Income scenario, in which everyone's basic needs are met without anything being required of them in return. The problem is that a lot of the political activists and "thinkers" in the colony don't feel any social obligation to help out even with pressing practical problems; that's not their area.

This is a conflict, and then the conflict goes away and is never mentioned again. Partly this is because bot production steps up, but I would have thought there would still be "free rider" issues that could be explored. More than that, within a few years the attitude to coerced contribution seems to have changed; even though the intent was that there wouldn't be any universal laws and each community would regulate itself, now there's a proposal that all women be required to bear children, because the population needs to grow, and this proposal passes - with opposition, but without, apparently, effective opposition. I had difficulty suspending my disbelief about that, mainly because reproductive choice is such a strong part of the beliefs of most people who would hold the kind of sentiments depicted as being so prevalent among the colonists, and because we've shifted so quickly from an anarchist utopia to a central government (however minimalist).

Setting aside such issues, though, I felt that the strength of this book was in linking personal relationships to political and social issues. A key plot point is resolved because a character can't bring himself to pursue his ideals at the expense of a member of his family; later, another member of his family is on the other end of quite a different decision by the AIs. (I felt this could have been strengthened if the second family member had been a direct descendant of the first.)

Competently written, exploring important themes of how we build our societies and interact with each other and with our technologies, this is a worthwhile book and an enjoyable read.

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Tuesday 23 December 2014

Review: Fantasy For Good: A Charitable Anthology

Fantasy For Good: A Charitable Anthology
Fantasy For Good: A Charitable Anthology by Jordan Ellinger

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I bought this book after reading the introduction via Urban Fantasy magazine. The intro is from the son of Roger Zelazny, one of my favourite writers, who died of colon cancer, and the proceeds of the book go to colon cancer charities.

I enjoyed some of the selections, though the book did have one major problem: it doesn't appear to have been past a copy editor, meaning that the stories are just as they have come from the contributors. Now, in some cases, they're professional enough that this doesn't matter, because they produce a clean manuscript, or, in the case of the reprints, the story may already have been copy edited. In other cases, though, this puts some embarrassing and distracting errors on display.

It also seems to be a rule for anthologies that the editors make at least one error in their introduction, and here it's "poured" when they mean "pored".

Now to the stories. They're in several sections. The first is Sword and Sorcery, which has a tendency to veer into Grimdark - in other words, unpleasant stories about unpleasant characters who almost deserve their considerable suffering. That's not the case for all of them, fortunately, but it is for most.

"The Edge of Magic", Henry Szabranski: The story of an unhappy marriage and the war between men and women.

"Annual Dues", Ken Scholes: A redemptive moment for a grimdark character? That doesn't end well.

"Elroy Wooden Sword", S.C. Hayden: A genuinely good-hearted and heroic character is, of course, a naive dupe. Several apostrophe issues, comma splices, "a furry of smoke and fire" (typo for "fury"), a couple of other homophone errors and misspellings, the anachronistic term "coolest" dropped into the middle of the text, but otherwise not a bad story of its type.

"In the Lost Lands", George R.R. Martin: One of the kings of grimdark. I thoroughly disliked all the nasty, cruel, self-centred characters, but it was beautifully written and cleverly plotted.

"Worms Rising from the Dirt", David Farland: Not even the beginning of a story, but a part from the middle of a story, with no real conclusion.

"Snow Wolf and Evening Wolf", James Enge: This, I thought, was well done, the clash of two different kinds of werewolf in medieval Iceland.

"Knight's Errand", Jane Lindskold: This is the kind of story I enjoy more, with a world-weary knight rediscovering some of his idealism as he and a winged horse fight against the trap of a sorcerer. Lots of imaginative worldbuilding and the feel of a true old-style sword-and-sorcery yarn.

Fairy Tales: this was a dark genre in its origins, and has returned there from its sojourn in Disneyland.

"Languid in Rose", Frances Silversmith: This story about the breaking of a curse by a courageous young queen reminds me a little, in its theme if nothing else, of Ursula Le Guin's "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas". Typo "membered" for "remembered".

"Green They Were, and Golden-Eyed", Alan Dean Foster: Foster's stories strike me as the fictional equivalent of a "For Dummies" book, successful because they aim so low in terms of challenge to the reader. This is a somewhat cutesy Christmas story about Santa being helped by rainforest frogs, and contains a few minor errors and a shaky and inconsistent attempt to sound Australian, as well as a dangling participle and a couple of misused words ("needful" for "needy" and "propitiate" for "propitious").

"Golden", Todd McCaffrey: I read the first of the books that Todd McCaffrey wrote in his famous mother's Pern series, and was amused, in an appalled kind of way, to see him repeatedly refer to burning coals in a "grazier" (which must have been painful for the cattle farmer concerned). Accordingly, I was expecting homophone errors, and I got them, most notably "horde" (a group of dangerous beings) when he means "hoard" (a collection of valuable objects). Since this is a story about (non-Pern) dragons, the word comes up a lot, and it's consistently wrong. There are also a number of sentences in which some key word has been missed out, and "quilting" when he means "quirking". The story itself is... OK, but not anything special. It's clear that it wasn't because of his writing talent that he got published.

"Mountain Spirit", Piers Anthony: I used to read a lot of Piers Anthony, but it's not something you can sustain as an adult, really, certainly not as a feminist adult. This story is a particularly egregious example of gender stereotyping, written in the same sort of for-dummies style as the Foster.

"Moon Glass", Megan N. Moore: I enjoyed this story about love and its excesses and symbols.

"The George Business", Roger Zelazny: Perhaps not one of Zelazny's best works, but there's plenty of distance to travel between Zelazny's best works and "not good". This is amusing, the story of two initially fairly inept confidence tricksters who happen to be a knight and a dragon, and he knows how to spell "hoard".

The Paranormal: This appears to be the editors' term for what I would call supernatural horror, for the most part.

"Only the End of the World Again", Neil Gaiman: Even more than Zelazny, for my money Gaiman is unable to write a bad story, and even when (as here) there are deeply disturbing elements to it, I somehow end up enjoying it. Even though it's Lovecraft fanfic, which I usually abominate. What is the man's secret?

"Lenora of the Low", Marina J. Lostetter: Dark and gruesome, and with a couple of issues ("accompaniment" for "companion", and "broach" for "brooch"), but, to me, a successful story of a woman's revenge taken for her sister's sake.

"Trufan Fever", Katherine Kerr: I enjoy Kerr's writing, and this is no exception, a shifter story that could as easily have been in the Urban Fantasy section of the book, where its tone would have fitted better. A few fumbled sentences don't detract too much.

"Undying Love", Jackie Kessler: A nasty, tragic story with a demon who seems too nice by half, but helpless to prevent a long series of horrible events.

Urban Fantasy:

"Dancing with the Mouse King", Carrie Vaughn: I usually enjoy Vaughn's work more than this. Not that it's bad, I just didn't follow why the protagonist suddenly switched sides near the end. It's beautifully told, and the theme is nicely sustained, though.

"Showlogo", Nnedi Okorafor: I don't know if the lack of a clear beginning-middle-end structure is an imitation of African storytelling or just being a trendy literary fantasy writer, but in either case I didn't enjoy it all that much. The content of the piece I enjoyed more (apart from some minor copy editing errors); the title character is interesting, but ultimately needs a plot he isn't given.

"The Bluest Hour", Jaye Wells: The homophone errors discrete/discreet and Channel/Chanel and the occasional slips into past out of present tense, plus occasional missing words and the double use of the same simile ("pain like an aneurism") left me feeling that this needed more editorial attention than it received. The story itself was one of those alienated-loser-finds-a-kind-of-redemption tales that leave me fairly cold.

"Pandal Food", Samit Basu: It's OK to have a twist, but it's not fair to deliberately mislead the audience away from the twist. Also, rather a nasty ending. The odd copy edit wouldn't have gone amiss.

"Loincloth", Kevin J. Anderson and Rebecca Moesta: This is an odd one in terms of time period. The technology says it's present-day, but the kind of movie being made is pretty much a thing of the 1950s or earlier. As, indeed, are the gender politics.

"Man of Water", Kyle Aisteach: The mythical beast here appears to be the semi-honest former Congressman. All joking apart, though, it's a good story, with tension and action and a resolution at the end.

Weird Fantasy:

"Bones of a Righteous Man", Michael Ezell: Very clearly inspired by King's Dark Tower. A couple of times, the tense is off (should be past perfect rather than simple past), but overall, a successful story, with some redemption in among the tragedy.

"Time's Mistress", Steven Savile: The only story I didn't read all the way through. Tell, tell, tell, tell, tell, tell, tell, tell, comma splice, tell, tell, tell, tell, tell, sentence fragment, tell, tell, tell, missing commas, tell, tell, tell, sentence fragment, tell, tell, tell, and then I skipped to the end, bored and not caring what happened (from my glance at the ending, nothing much).

"Little Pig, Berry Brown and the Hard Moon", Jay Lake: Jay Lake, like Roger Zelazny, died of colon cancer, so his inclusion here makes sense. I wasn't sure I liked this story at first. It has the feel of a Native American tale, very formal, but by the end it had become a powerful story about death and passing on the baton to the next generation and giving up childhood, all the more poignant given his own family's situation.

"The Grenade Garden", Michael Moorcock: I've never got into Michael Moorcock's work, and this story certainly isn't the one to change my mind. It's possible that if I knew the Jerry Cornelius mythos it might make some kind of sense, but I doubt it. Full of unsignalled shifts of place and time, multiple related characters, unlikely events, and complete non sequiteurs, it seemed like random nonsense to me. The frequently missing closing quotation marks didn't help any. At least he knows what a horde is.

"Sand and Teeth", Carmen Tudor: I have to admit I didn't completely follow this one either, though it was a model of lucidity compared to the previous story. There seems to be a little subgenre of Egyptianish temple priests/priestesses, and this is an example.

"The Seas of Heaven", David Parish-Whittaker: This is one of those stories where you're not sure whether the events are actually taking place or if the narrator is mad. On balance, I tend to go for the latter. The events, and the narrator, are nasty and I didn't enjoy it greatly.

When I started this review I thought I'd enjoyed most of the stories, but that appears to have been selective memory. If you have a greater appetite for darkness than I do, and are less inclined to notice a lack of copy editing, you may well enjoy it much more.

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Tuesday 16 December 2014

Review: The Legion of Nothing: Rebirth

The Legion of Nothing: Rebirth
The Legion of Nothing: Rebirth by Jim Zoetewey

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I encountered this story first of all on Podiobooks, and it's a testament to how engaging a story it is that I listened to the whole thing, despite what I would have to rate as the worst audiobook performance I have ever heard. (The reader's delivery wasn't just flat; what emphasis he did put in was reliably in the wrong place.)

Second time around, several years later, I read the ebook, and again, the story kept me engaged despite the fact that it needs a good editor. There are missing words, added words, missing commas, added commas, and inconsistent or incorrect apostrophes (most notably, the author doesn't seem sure whether to put one in "Heroes' League" or not). Nothing truly egregious, and I only spotted one minor homophone error, but there are quite a few instances of the same issues.

So, what was this story that kept me so engaged? It's a young superhero's first-person story of the revival of the Heroes' League (yes, the apostrophe should be there), started by his grandfather along with some others, whose grandchildren are now also teenagers and are also ready to join the new League. The narrator is Nick (hero name "the Rocket"), who has inherited his grandfather's powered armour and, apparently, his interest and skill in engineering (though not his grandmother's phasing ability, it appears). It's not clear why, in most cases, the powers and other abilities have skipped a generation (assuming that they have; only one of the fathers is a super, as far as Nick is aware, though I presume there may be others unrevealed). But it leaves the teens with limited guidance and supervision from their elders, and they have to figure out the moral dilemmas of superheroism for themselves.

Nick is often not sure what to do, and ends up doing nothing, which is more realistic, though less exciting than the usual headstrong character one often gets in these stories. There's a good deal of mundanity in his life and his description, alongside the hero issues. I think that, on the whole, this is a feature rather than a bug; it highlights the hero stuff by contrast.

The plot gradually builds, and the action scenes are well distributed and well handled. The characters are mostly distinct and well-drawn (I never could get a handle on Marcus, but he's the one Nick knows least well). Overall, an entertaining story, and if I could get some kind of reassurance that it would go past a good editor I would definitely want to read the next one.

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Sunday 14 December 2014

Review: Night Broken

Night Broken
Night Broken by Patricia Briggs

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There are a few really good urban fantasy authors who aren't just grabbing a bunch of tropes and creating the written equivalent of an action movie, and Patricia Briggs is one of them. (Others include [a:Carrie Vaughn|8988|Carrie Vaughn|], [a:C.E. Murphy|8695|C.E. Murphy|] and, of course, [a:Jim Butcher|10746|Jim Butcher|].) These books have a depth of insight into human relationships, and use that to make the action scenes matter. Because there are action scenes; but they're not constant, and when they do occur the stakes are not the weaksauce "does the character win?" or even "will the character save the world... or destroy it?" Instead, they have implications and side-implications to do with all of the great human drives: esteem and affection, security and survival, power and control. There's not just one thing hanging on the outcome of the fight, and when this is the case you can get away with fewer fights, because they mean more.

In a sense, the actual physical fights in this book in particular are almost background to a different struggle, between Mercy (the series lead and narrator) and her husband's manipulative and pathetic ex-wife. The scenes in which Christie, the ex, manipulates everyone around her and sets up conversations and situations in which Mercy has no way to come out the winner is masterful, and shows a depth of life experience and reflection on human behaviour that you don't see in many genre books. This masterfulness gained the book its fifth star from me. I've decided to start giving five stars not just to books that leave me gasping or do something new that's completely amazing, but also to books that are particularly well done.

This book is particularly well done. Although it's well along in a series, with references to a spinoff series, it could be a starting point, since enough of the backstory is refreshed that you could follow what was going on. Some of the richness comes from having followed the series and seen the characters change and grow, but nevertheless this volume could stand on its own.

I looked forward to reading it, and I wasn't disappointed.

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Review: The Marvelous Land of Oz

The Marvelous Land of Oz
The Marvelous Land of Oz by L. Frank Baum

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Come for the whimsy, stay for the commentary on gender roles and expectations and the ethics of power. Or possibly vice versa.

The book is more than a century old, and of course Baum's views on these issues are not what a contemporary author would put across, but they were radical for their time. It's not an "ideas novel" in which the author shoves his ideology at you, though; it's a whimsical story for children that happens to have an overlay of social and political commentary from an unusual perspective.

As a children's story, it's at times a bit lacking in character agency and rather full of deus ex machina, but I forgave those as genre tropes and went along for the ride. I particularly liked the Woggle-Bug, who just about has to have been based on a real person (or more than one); his high opinion of his own education and his persistent punning are very recognisable as a type you will meet frequently on the Internet or in person. These days, he would probably be some sort of gamer, quite likely tabletop.

I'm reasonably sure that Baum is being ironic about Glinda "the Good"; she's actually a high-handed tyrant who happens to be beautiful and hence, carrying that signifier of goodness, gets away with it. But maybe I'm just too influenced by having seen Wicked.

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Monday 8 December 2014

Review: Mind the Gap

Mind the Gap
Mind the Gap by Tim Richards

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This hovered, for me, in the tricky gap (ha!) between three and four stars. It's either right at the top of three stars - better than mediocre, reasonably competent, some originality, and I did enjoy it - or right at the bottom of four stars: over-padded middle, under-motivated protagonist, and at least some of the time I wished it was finished so that I could read something else, which is what finally decided me on a three-star rating.

Let's talk some more about the over-padded middle and under-motivated protagonist, which were the main reasons it didn't engage me more. There are quite a few cycles of "some things are explained that leave us with more questions, action scene, main character escapes using his power, fetches up somewhere else, dreams; shift to secondary viewpoint character, exposition, they make some decision or take some action, that character dreams". There were, for my taste, too many of those cycles.

You may have noticed in my summary that the main character, Darius, is primarily reactive, while secondary characters are more proactive, and this was another problem for me. At one point, one of the secondary characters reflects on the main character's motivations, and they're fairly weak, the kind of motivations a character often has near the start of a book rather than near the end: escape, get back home, and while he's at it rescue the girl.

Ah, the girl. Viv was, to me, the strongest character, more interesting, more proactive and more effective than the Darius was. They connect in a way that never convinced me: after one of his early teleportation episodes, Darius, disheveled, confused and presumably still with vomit breath from his reaction to his first episode, fetches up at Viv's coffee stand and talks like a crazy person. She meets him again by chance after work, and decides to take him home and sleep with him. Shortly thereafter, they're separated, but highly motivated to get back together and rescue each other, even though they basically hardly know each other (and it's already been established that this is his second casual sexual encounter in about three days). In the event, Viv rescues herself, largely, which I liked.

The last fifth or so of the book became more engaging, with thrilling events and a satisfying resolution, but there was an almost literal deus ex machina of sorts involved, and it wasn't enough to compensate for the overlong central portion.

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Friday 5 December 2014

Review: Dreams of the Golden Age

Dreams of the Golden Age
Dreams of the Golden Age by Carrie Vaughn

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I love the idea of superhero fiction, but all too often the execution isn't to my taste. Most superhero fiction tends to the dark and gritty and tragic, and I'm not into that. This is the other kind. The book neatly describes itself in the last chapter: "It was family drama, not superhero mythology". And yet it's more than that sentence implies, as well.

It's a while since I read the first in the series, [b:After the Golden Age|8665134|After the Golden Age (Golden Age, #1)|Carrie Vaughn||13536680]. In part, that was because I was waiting for the price to drop (I read more than 100 books a year, so $9.99 for an ebook isn't going to happen, however confident I am that the book will be good). I remember, though, that the first book focussed a lot more on relationships than on superheroics, on the consequences for the family members of the supers, particularly Celia, the non-powered daughter of Captain Olympus and Spark. She kept getting taken hostage, even though that never turned out well for the villains, and as an act of teenage rebellion once became a supervillain's minion.

Here, Celia is a middle-aged mother, bringing up teenage daughters and worrying she's doing it badly (she isn't, in the scheme of things) and that they will develop powers and put themselves in danger (one of them does), and at the same time hoping that her daughter and her daughter's friends will become the next generation of superpowered protectors of the city she loves. Because even if she hasn't inherited the powers, Celia has inherited the obsession with the city that both the heroes and villains born there seem to share.

Though Celia is a main viewpoint character, the other main viewpoint is her daughter Anna, AKA Compass Rose, who can locate anyone she knows well enough. Besides the usual mother-daughter stuff complicated by superpowers, and the usual friend stuff complicated by superpowers, and the usual teenage crush stuff complicated by superpowers, there's also a lot of reflection (mostly taking place in and around action) on what supers can do about crime that isn't street crime, and how they interface with the police and the media.

This is a realistic world, above all; a realistic world in which teenagers can shoot lasers from their hands and leap tall buildings, but in all other respects realistic. I've recently had two people ask me about my taste for superhero fiction. A friend on Google+ asked why I enjoyed superhero prose; he's an artist, and to him the visual aspect of comics is important. I replied, more or less, that prose gives an opportunity to go further into the characters' interior world and their relationships, rather than just being about the fights and the destruction, and this is very much what this book is like. There's a superhero fight, but it's a desperate, frightening thing filled with significance because of all the work that the author has put in beforehand building up the relationships and the inner lives of the characters.

The other person who asked me about my enjoyment of superhero fiction was my wife, who wanted to know why I like the TV show The Flash but don't like Scorpion because it's too over-the-top and hokey. My answer was that Scorpion is a technothriller; it tries to be set in the real world, but fails, because the technology that it tries to take completely seriously makes no sense whatsoever (and it's cheesier than the exports of Wisconsin). The Flash, on the other hand, is about relationships and conflicts in a world of what-if, where the what-if is superpowers. I accept the superpowers as part of the furniture of the world, without worrying about how physics doesn't work that way, because the show knows that physics doesn't work that way but is asking me to suspend my disbelief about it and enjoy the story.

That's also what this book is like. I quickly came to care about the characters, who are vulnerable and troubled without being whiny, brave and idealistic without being headstrong idiots, and whose conflicts are driven by their own flaws but ultimately resolved by their own virtues. It's good writing, good fiction.

So, it's a good book that just happens to have supers in it? No. The fact that these people are supers and the relatives of supers is fundamental to their situation and their identities. You couldn't remove that aspect and have a remotely similar book. The author has perfectly fused the "supers" part and the "people" part together and produced a whole greater than the sum of those parts.

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Friday 28 November 2014

Review: Witch Hunt

Witch Hunt
Witch Hunt by Annie Bellet

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book doesn't pretend to be anything other than what it is: an entertaining D&D-style adventure. For the genre, it's well done, with no attempt at silly dialect, names which aren't ridiculous, and characters who, while not developed to any great depth, at least have relationships between them and act believably. While it's obviously in the D&D genre, it isn't in any of the licensed settings, and the worldbuilding shows some originality and thought.

It's a short book, and to me it feels about the right length for the story, a straightforward quest to deliver a town from a curse.

At first I thought the editing was good, and certainly the writing is fluid and the punctuation competent, but later on I hit a few minor homonym errors (the worst being the "bowl" of a tree instead of "bole"). Most of them probably wouldn't be noticeable to a casual reader.

If what you're looking for is a simple, entertaining tale that could be (and quite likely is) a competently-done writeup of an experienced D&D group's gaming session, look no further.

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Review: Random

Random by Alma Alexander

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There's a group of YA authors - I'm thinking of [a:Robin McKinley|5339|Robin McKinley|], [a:Juliet Marillier|8649|Juliet Marillier|], [a:Justine Larbelestier|4447198|Justine Larbelestier|], and a few others - who write the kind of books that snooty adults who look down on YA in Internet articles have clearly never read. These are books that don't get made into popular movies, because most of what happens is internal to the characters.

This kind of YA has depth and resonance and significance. It shines a light on the path for young people (young women, in particular) who are looking for courage and a place in the world. It's some time since I was young, and I've never been a woman, but I'm glad that young women have writers like these in their corner, writing the sort of books that will help to shape their lives towards being remarkable people with a sense of hope and purpose, despite the challenges they face.

Not only does Alma Alexander understand this, and talk about the phenomenon in this book, but this book is itself an example of what I mean. The experience of being an immigrant, the experience of being different, the experience of being treated unfairly by self-righteous authority and being powerless to do anything about it, are all here, beautifully depicted, unflinchingly described, shown with all their terrible consequences.

The book begins with one young woman's unexpected and disconcerting transformation, but then takes a step back and shows what lay behind the transformation, what triggered it: the rediscovery of her older sister's diaries, telling the story of what led up to her tragic loss. In fact, the older sister's story takes over the book, relegating what would otherwise be a remarkable transformation almost to an inconvenience (though it's clear it will be important in the rest of the trilogy). The book closes with a stunning revelation that left me unable to say anything but "Wow. Wow."

Oddly enough, I wouldn't usually have picked this book up; I only did so because the author approached me (as someone who has indicated on Goodreads that he is a fan of hers for her earlier work) and asked me to review it. I usually don't take review requests, and especially of books that, based on the cover and blurb, I wouldn't pick up for myself, but I agreed to read the sample and see if it hooked me. It very much did, and I'm grateful to the author for the review copy and for drawing it to my attention, as well as for writing the book in the first place.

I don't give five stars often or lightly, only to books that I know I'll remember for a long time to come, that were more than just entertaining, that showed me something out of the ordinary. This is such a book.

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Saturday 22 November 2014

Review: Fantastic Stories Presents: Science Fiction Super Pack #1

Fantastic Stories Presents: Science Fiction Super Pack #1
Fantastic Stories Presents: Science Fiction Super Pack #1 by Isaac Asimov

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In brief: The story selection is excellent. The copy-editing, however, is nonexistent. I marked 180 errors, which even in such a long book is a great many - far too many.

Like the companion fantasy volume, it only has one story I didn't think was good, and again, it's a piece of Lovecraft fanfiction. Lovecraft's overwrought prose doesn't do much for me even when Lovecraft himself writes it, and much less so when it's attempted by imitators. And Lovecraft's stories at least have something frightening that happens in them; these two stories (in this volume and the other) only have visions of aspects of the Mythos and crazy people ranting, which isn't scary or interesting.

Everything else was good, occasionally even amazing.

Again like the fantasy volume, it more or less alternates between recent stories and classics by the greats of the field. Unlike the fantasy volume, it contains at least two (and perhaps three or four) stories which I'd read before. It's a rare pleasure, though, to find this many excellent stories that are new to me. I do tend to prefer fantasy to SF, and maybe that's why I preferred the other volume slightly, but I enjoyed this too.

"The Cold Calculations" by Michael A. Burstein is a sad story of an AI whose life is messed up by a human. There's a clear nod to "The Cold Equations".

"They Twinkled Like Jewels" by Philip Jose Farmer starts out dystopian and ends up sci-fi horror. It's well told.

"Lingua Franca" by Carole McDonnell is a lovely social SF story which takes as its springboard the way that some people in the deaf community feel about hearing restoration and its impact on their culture.

"Dawn of Flame" by Stanley G. Weinbaum is post-apocalyptic, far from my favourite subgenre, and the protagonist is pigheadedly fighting against a warlord who seems to be doing a pretty good job of reunifying people and creating peace. It uses the trope of a woman so beautiful that men constantly fail their Stupidity save around her, which annoys me.

"Don't Jump" by Warren Lapine is a classic asteroid-miner tale, the kind of "clever engineer" story that dominated the field for so long, but with a post-New-Wave second layer about what's truly important in life. I think it succeeds, despite the occasional comma splice and other editing issues (Warren Lapine is the editor of the book, and reading this helped me realise why the copy editing has so many problems).

"Youth" by Isaac Asimov is one that I think I've read before, many years ago (I read a lot of Asimov as a teenager, and that's now 30 years in the past). I certainly tumbled to the twist ending very early on. Asimov has to maneuver awkwardly around his exposition in order to avoid giving the twist away too soon, and I didn't think it was a great story.

"Digger Don't Take No Requests" by John Teehan is in the blue-collar SF subgenre dominated by Allen Steele. The main character kind of gets his resolution handed to him, rather than achieving them through his own cleverness and effort, which reduces the effectiveness of a story with an enjoyable voice.

"Lighter Than You Think" by Nelson Bond is the story I've definitely read before, a jokey mad-science-gizmo-goes-wrong tale in the tradition of Fredric Brown. It was a bit of light fun.

"Garden of Souls" by M. Turville Heitz is a medium-future-Earth tale which asks some good questions about home and family.

"The Variable Man" by Philip K. Dick is set against an interstellar war, but is basically a mad-science-gizmo/clever-engineer story with a bit of politics thrown in. It's better than that makes it sound.

"Starwisps" by Edward J. McFadden III is a kind of psychic/magic powers story, rather a lovely one, though I thought the ending came a bit too easily and the mixture of names from our world with completely made-up names didn't really work.

"Gorgono and Slith" by Ray Bradbury is a bizarre drug-trip story about the author putting together a magazine. I didn't think much of it.

"I Was There When They Made the Video" by Cynthia Ward is a near-future story, written in that very thin slice of time between people being aware of cyberspace and its possibilities and the demise of CD stores. The music club culture is alien to me, so I didn't identify that well with the characters, but the ideas it raises (but only minimally explores) are good ones to think about.

"The Perfect Host" by Theodore Sturgeon is a brilliant piece of writing, despite, or even because of, the author self-insertion. The voices of the different narrators are distinct (Scalzi should take notes), and the sci-fi horror is genuinely disturbing.

"That Universe We Both Dreamed Of" by Jay O'Connell is a hopeful alien-contact story. I liked it.

"The Lake of Light" by Jack Williamson reads as if it was written based on a pulp cover of a scantily-clad woman singing to lobsterlike monsters while two rugged male adventurers await their chance to rescue her. It's about as good as it sounds. It's followed by a strange nonfiction piece on "The Menace of the Insect" which seems to have been scanned by accident from the same magazine and not edited out.

"Lies, Truth and the Color of Faith" by Gerri Lean is another psychic-powers story, well written and poignant as a woman discovers that her lover is using her on behalf of the enemy.

"The Second Satellite" by Edmond Hamilton is a pulp adventure on an undetected second satellite of Earth (yes, I know, it's really just a device to get the heroes to another world, where they defeat the evil race that looks less like them than the other race). Again, there's what seems to be an accidental scan of another nonfiction piece at the end.

"Hopscotch and Hottentots" by Lou Antonelli shows us a planet colonised by (South African) humans many generations ago, encountering newly arrived people from Earth, and a situation that parallels the history of South Africa - but resolves much more hopefully. I'm generally all for the hopeful ending, but with the setup it had, it fell a bit flat for me.

"No Place to Hide" by James Dorr shows us revenge gone very bad. The science is a bit dubious, but the story is strong.

"Industrial Revolution" by Poul Anderson starts as a club story, becomes the tale of the revolution against the nasty liberal government that hates capitalism, and ends with the hero getting, in my view, the wrong girl.

"The Visitor" by Ann Wilkes manages to do something new with first contact, which is hard. It also has an ending that makes you wonder which parts of the earlier story were accurate.

"Travel Diary" by Alfred Bester is a lovely feat of writing, alternating the kind of dry, high-level political history that you get in academic books with the diary of an oblivious, self-obsessed weathy airhead travelling around and missing or misinterpreting the political events.

"Encounter in Redgunk" by William R. Eakin is a Southern US story with a lot of emotional power.

"The Indecorous Rescue of Clarinda Merwin: Or, Reader, I Laid My Eggs in Him" by Brenda W. Clough combines first contact with the early-19th-century novel and makes it work.

"Lost Paradise" by C.L. Moore is one of her Northwest Smith stories, involving a kind of time travel and the end of a civilization. It's her usual powerful writing and lush description.

"Siblings" by Warren Lapine is another first-contact story, in which first contact almost goes terribly bad and then goes extremely well. It reminded me of Murray Leinster's "The Aliens", one of my favourite classic stories.

"Gun for Hire" by Mack Reynolds is one I may have read before, or the twist at the end may just be that obvious. It's a time-travel story, a mob hit man abducted into a peaceful future.

"The Answer" by H. Beam Piper is a postapocalyptic tragedy, rather beautifully done.

"Pythias" by Frederik Pohl is a scary tale of what happens when a man develops ultimate power.

"Arm of the Law" by Harry Harrison shows a robot cop cleaning up a backwater town on Mars. It's amusing and has its ideals written all over it in big, bold letters, like most Harrison stories.

"The Good Neighbours" by Edgar Pangborn is a story almost entirely in "tell" mode and without any real characters, and given those limitations it's surprisingly successful.

"The Intruder" by Emil Petaja is the Lovecraft fanfic I referred to earlier. The English isn't good, and nor is the story.

"The Six Fingers of Time" by R.A. Lafferty I have read before, fairly recently, so I remembered the ending. The journey was still worthwhile.

"An Ounce of Cure" by Alan Edward Nourse is a satire on medicine and its specialization.

"The Hoofer" by Walter M. Miller, Jr. is a blue-collar-SF tragedy, though the SF part is window dressing, and it would have worked just as well without.

"The Stellar Legion" by Leigh Brackett is good old planetary-romance pulp, basically a British colonial boys'-own-paper tale translated to Venus. For what it is, it's good.

"Year of the Big Thaw" by Marion Zimmer Bradley has hints of the Superman origin story. It finishes with the kind of soft ending that Bradley herself famously condemned, which is an unfortunate way to end the volume, perhaps.

The book closes with some repetitious and typo-ridden boilerplate background on the authors, clearly a rush job.

Now, I face a conflict of interest here, since I aspire to be published in the magazine that's partly funded by sales of this anthology. Having announced that conflict, I'll say: If you can deal with the many editing issues, the stories themselves are, on average, well above average, and they offer a wonderful smorgasbord of SF in many subgenres, representing every decade (except the 1970s) since 1930. There are a lot of them, too, and so I'd say it's worth the price.

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Review: Engines of Empathy

Engines of Empathy
Engines of Empathy by Paul Mannering

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The blurb compares this book to Pratchett and Douglas Adams, and there is some resemblance. I know why they picked those names - everyone knows them - but it's really more like two other writers: Jasper Fforde and Tom Holt.

It has the slightly-off-from-our-world feel, and the silly names, of Fforde, both of them turned up beyond 11. Perhaps too far; I kept tripping over the world's oddities (is the row of cinnamon in the herb garden a difference, or a mistake, since cinnamon is made from tree bark?), and the silly names are extremely silly: EGS Benedict, Anna Colouthon, and Spaniel Pudding all make an appearance. I'm no fan of punny or silly names, especially when taken so far. I put up with them in Pratchett and Adams because they do everything else so well.

It also has the setup of a Tom Holt story, or rather, of the Tom Holt story, since all Tom Holt's books are essentially the same. Loserish Britishish person's dull life is abruptly complicated by supernaturalish events. Helped by another loserish person of the opposite gender, main character overcomes the supernatural problem, and they hook up.

Having said all that, I enjoyed this much more than I've ever enjoyed a Tom Holt or Jasper Fforde book. It makes up for the silly names (just; they are extremely silly) by some beautiful passages. "Driving less like the wind and more like a sea fog..." "'I have a plan,' Drakeforth grinned. 'Did you ever think that life would be so much easier if you had a hamster called Clarence instead?' I asked hopefully."

Also, the plot is not what I expected. There's some depth to it; it manages to have some more serious and even dark moments without descending into Holtean cynicism, and the ending took me by surprise, in a good way.

With all the language play it's hard to be sure, but I did spot one definite error: "illicit" for "elicit". The ebook is also full of unexpected hyphens in the middle of words, as if it's been scanned from a print version. Otherwise, the editing is largely clean.

This is the first of a trilogy, and I'l be watching out for the others. I found out about it on the SpecFicNZ forum thread for Sir Julius Vogel Award nominations, and I'll be adding my nomination. Silly names notwithstanding.

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Review: The Silk Code

The Silk Code
The Silk Code by Paul Levinson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This... well, it's not open to the accusation of being the same-old same-old. Amish bioengineers help protect a New York forensic scientist from a kind of retrovirus created by Neanderthals. Who are still around, and still fighting us. In the middle of the book, we go back to the 7th century, where a Tocharian druid, a Jew, a Byzantine Greek and a Moslem walk into a bar... sorry, I mean, circumnavigate Africa in search of the Singers, another name for the Neanderthals. Silk is all over the place, and the codes in DNA, music, language, and woven fabrics are freely convertible into one another (which is pretty obvious nonsense).

The science is... unlikely, and I found my suspension of disbelief tested beyond destruction a few times. I chose to regard it as more a technothriller than SF (the echo in the title of another well-known thriller involving dubious ancient mysteries helped with that). As a thriller, it kind of works. As a mystery, it very much doesn't; we're not given the clues to figure it out, and it has to be unwound in a big infodump at the end. There are scientific, or scientific-adjacent, infodumps throughout, usually short enough not to be too tedious.

The main character, the forensic scientist, unfortunately isn't very protagonistic. The author even hangs a lampshade on this early on, pointing out that he's just been reacting to events, but it doesn't improve all that much. Secondary characters drop dead around him with alarming frequency, he is apparently given a lot of latitude by his department to investigate the mystery, but his inquiries are not that effective, hence the need for the final infodump. He falls back on wild speculation as a substitute for any kind of scientific effectiveness (for a forensic scientist, he's very bad at finding evidence).

This isn't remotely a feminist book. A couple of the older female characters manage to be actual characters, but the younger ones are mainly objects of the male gaze. That includes Jenna, the MC's girlfriend, who, to me, never seemed to have any characteristics of her own; she was someone for him to have sex with, worry about and engage in expository dialog.

Nothing really hung together for me. Were the Neanderthals 30,000 years old, or was it just some technobabbled effect of the virus that made Neanderthal remains look that age? Apparently, both. Was the main Neanderthal character 300 or 30? What was the deal with the silk? Butterflies to carry messages, really?

Adding to the annoyance, I listened to this in the Podiobooks version. The narrator frequently fumbles words, and should not attempt an English accent; his attempt sounds like nothing on earth, but the closest comparison I can make is a Bostonian who's just lost a drunken brawl. The author shows off how well-connected he is in the SFF world by having well-known writers introduce each chapter.

That all makes it sound as if I hated it, and I didn't. I listened all the way through, and was entertained. It's just that the many issues eventually outweighed the entertainment factor, and apart from the chutzpah of even attempting something like this, there wasn't much to make it stand out.

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Saturday 1 November 2014

Review: Kill School

Kill School
Kill School by Gregory Lynn

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Full disclosure: I know the author on social media. He's a fan of my books, and we've beta-read for each other (I beta-read this book). However, all of this is because we have a lot in common in our tastes and the way we think.

The voice of Hobbes the goblin, the narrator of this book, is Gregory Lynn's voice. I've always enjoyed that voice, and here I get a whole novella of it. It's snide, with the world-weary-decent-guy-just-trying-to-make-it-through vibe of [a:K.J. Parker|240708|K.J. Parker|]. It's not, however, just an amusing style with no substance. There's a plot, and a good one: Hobbes makes the mistake of defending himself too vigorously against a bully, with fatal results, and is faced with the choice of a horrible death or assassin school (without actually being told it's assassin school).

Something bad is about to go down, too, planned by the hobgoblin bosses. We don't find out what in this first novella, and if I had to quibble I'd say that the story is too evidently Episode 1, though the final test at Kill School is a good place to break it. I certainly didn't mind, though, and I look forward to the continuation of Hobbes' adventures.

I received a copy from the author as thanks for being a beta reader.

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Sunday 26 October 2014

Review: Owl and the Japanese Circus

Owl and the Japanese Circus
Owl and the Japanese Circus by Kristi Charish

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I received a pre-publication copy via Netgalley for purposes of review. (Accordingly, there is a chance that the editing issues I mention will be resolved before publication.)

This is an action-packed urban fantasy starring an antiquities thief, something between Indiana Jones and Lana Croft, only more obviously outside the law than either. It's fast-paced and entertaining, though the bits about translating the scroll are obvious technobabble to anyone who knows anything about linguistics, and there are a few other issues.

Firstly, there are some very strange vocabulary errors: summarized/surmised, appraise/apprise, enacted/enforced, distinct/distinctive, lead/led, glazed over/glossed over, damper down/damp down, you're/your, up/us, my/me and check/cheek (typos), friend's/friends', one/one's, consciously/in good conscience, reprise/reprieve, anymore/any more, succubi or incubi/succubus or incubus, conjugated/I have no idea, but probably not conjugated. As I say, hopefully these will be resolved before publication. I suspect that they're the remainder of a much larger number that have mostly been corrected. There are a few fumbled full stops and quotation marks, about the usual percentage.

More significant, to me, were the character issues. The story, as usual with urban fantasy, is told in first person by the protagonist, and the protagonist, also as usual, is a smart-mouthed woman who keeps getting herself in trouble by making stupid decisions. She tells us so over and over again, in fact. Now, I'm fine with all of this except the stupid decisions part. I never have much respect for female characters who make stupid, headstrong decisions that keep placing them in need of rescue by their sketchy-seeming, more powerful, more skilful, all-around more awesome love interest (who has A Secret that will Shock You, though it will probably be obvious to you a lot earlier than it is to the protagonist). It's true that she's competent in her field (perhaps unbelievably so; archaeology, like any discipline, has many parts to it, and people specialize early, so it's not really credible that she knows so much about so many different times and places and languages). What she's not competent at is doing anything remotely sensible that would keep her from getting beaten up or killed. And since she doesn't have the power of, for example, Harry Dresden, but is just a vanilla human, her survival to the end of the book is... let's say unlikely on the face of it.

I liked the cat, though. The cat rocked. Even if, in one scene, she started out with the cat on a leash accompanying her, and by the end of the scene he'd been with her friend the whole time. And even if he can open a window on the 23rd floor of a Vegas casino hotel (which generally don't have opening windows, do they?).

I did enjoy it, in a popcorn sort of way, and I've seen much worse. In all honesty, though, with so many problems I can't bring myself to give it four stars. It's a high three.

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Friday 24 October 2014

Review: Fantastic Stories Presents: Fantasy Super Pack #1

Fantastic Stories Presents: Fantasy Super Pack #1
Fantastic Stories Presents: Fantasy Super Pack #1 by Robert E. Howard

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This enormous collection of 34 stories presumably showcases the taste of the editor of Fantastic Stories of the Imagination, a relatively new prozine. As I'm interested in submitting to the magazine, I picked it up, and thoroughly enjoyed most of the stories, none of which I remembered reading before, though I'd heard of several of them.

I like stories that have a narrative arc, that build tension and then resolve it at the end, more than the currently-fashionable type of story that just stops at a thematic moment (or, I often suspect, when the author runs out of ideas). Based on this collection, this editor also likes the narrative-arc kind of story. Some of the stories had fairly predictable endings, I found, one or two fluffed about for a while before getting to the ending, and there were comparitively few twists (though there were a couple), but usually the tension was well maintained and satisfactorily resolved.

The editor is also clearly fond of the old Weird Tales style, and the Cthulhu Mythos in particular. This may account for the appearance of what I consider the one bad story in the bunch, Colleen Douglas's "Beyond Kadath", an almost plotless piece of amateurish Lovecraft fanfiction, rife with comma-splices.

The editor, in fact, is clearly better at picking good stories than at copy editing. Some of the stories have obviously been set from old printed books by optical character recognition, because they have the characteristic errors that that process produces, sitting there uncaught. There are, in several stories, missing or misplaced quotation marks. There are missing words, homonym errors (discrete/discreet, illusive/elusive, chords/cords, wretched/retched), and so forth. It's not in every story - most of the writers are good enough not to make the mistakes, but when they make them, or the OCR process makes them, the editor misses them, at least some of the time.

Leaving those cavils aside, especially for the price this is an excellent anthology, almost a quarter of a million words and, in my opinion, only one really bad story in the bunch.

This isn't just a fantasy collection. There are science fiction stories, and, as I mentioned, horror of the Weird Tales kind, mostly ghost stories and Mythos. There's sword and sorcery (Robert E. Howard's "Red Nails", for example, a Conan story with the trademark adolescent wish-fulfilment of the all-powerful, muscular barbarian picking up busty women, but the man could certainly write action). There's humour. Several of the stories involve time travel, while others deal in one way or another with the Fae, and might be called urban fantasy. There are a couple of post-apocalyptics, some of what I call "fantastica" (more or less surreal stories where the magic isn't rational), even a couple where the fantastical element is arguably in the mind of the viewpoint character. These disparate elements form a rich gumbo in which no two consecutive stories are alike. The more so since older stories are intermingled with more recent ones (in strict alternation, at first, though that pattern later breaks down); the most common decades represented are the 1950s, the 1930s, the 1990s and the 2000s, but every decade since 1910, except for the 1970s and 1980s, has at least one story. There's one original story in the volume, the rest are reprints. There's a mix, too, of famous writers like James Blish, Frederik Pohl, Philip K. Dick, Fritz Leiber, Stanley Weinbaum, Clifford Simak, Philip Jose Farmer, August Derleth, Clark Ashton Smith, Lester Del Rey and, of course, H.P. Lovecraft, alongside writers I hadn't heard of, but whose stories mostly stood up to the high company they kept.

Older stories, of course, tend to be about straight white men, so it's not a big surprise to find a lot of those. Some of the newer stories feature more women or non-white characters, but I didn't spot any gay characters, if that's something you look for in your stories.

Inevitably, the older stories in particular sometimes fall into classic trope patterns: the deal with the devil that goes wrong ("No Strings Attached"), the equivalent of the Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's court ("A Knyght Ther Was"), comic trouble with fantasy critters ("Pest Control"). The authors usually do something interesting and different with the trope, though, and in a few cases I suspect that the trope became popular originally because of the story represented here, such as "Worlds of If" (1935), an alternate-worlds tale by Stanley Weinbaum.

Overall, a varied and enjoyable collection, which makes me want to subscribe to Fantastic Stories of the Imagination. I suspect that's part of the point; if so, mission accomplished.

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Tuesday 21 October 2014

Review: Time Travel: Recent Trips

Time Travel: Recent Trips
Time Travel: Recent Trips by Paula Guran

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I received a pre-publication copy of this book via Netgalley for purposes of review.

Anthologies are usually a mixed bag, and this one is no exception, but, like the same editor's [b:Magic City: Recent Spells|20299673|Magic City Recent Spells|Paula Guran||28133245], in this one the good outweighed the bad for me.

The time travel methods varied, from handwavium to technobabble to believing really hard, but I don't go to a time travel anthology looking for hard science.

Personally, I didn't get a lot from the overly academic survey of time travel literature that forms the editor's introduction, mire because of its dry style than because of its content.

Bandana Singh's "With Fate Conspire" is set in a post-apocalyptic (cli-fi) India, where scientists are using the abilities of an illiterate woman to connect to an earlier time in case that will help change history for the better. It's a story more enjoyable for its journey than its destination, a "soft ending" story, but well told.

Steve Rasnic Tem's "Twember" could have done with more polishing (and will hopefully get it before the final version is released); it has a few minor errors and awkward phrases. There's a passage of philosophical musing which doesn't fit the character speaking it at all, and overall I found it one of those dreary stories in which unhappy characters don't do anything.

Ken Liu's "The Man Who Ended History: a Documentary" has all the elements I've come to expect from a Liu story. Not only the East Asian setting and characters, but the importance of family, the heartrending events, and the infodumps. This one was so heartrending that I couldn't read much of it (I have a low tolerance for torture and grimness), but I read enough to encounter an odd moment. It's cast as a documentary, as the title suggests, and one of the things about writing in this format is that you have to show, not tell (even if the characters are telling, they're doing so in dialogue). Yet Liu manages to slip a "tell" passage in anyway. Describing one of the interviewees, he gives us information about the man's motivation for teaching that we could not possibly get by watching a documentary, where all we have is people's appearance and their words. It's a strange slip from such a skilled craftsman, but if Liu has a fault, it's infodumping.

Kage Baker's "The Carpet Beds of Sutro Park" takes an apparently trivial topic - a public park, its decline, and the woman whose passion for it takes over her life - and, observing it through the eyes of a man who has been rendered effectively autistic by an immortality treatment, makes me care. That takes skill, and I applaud it.

Dale Bailey's "Mating Habits of the Late Cretaceous" was, I felt, two stories. One was a "literary" story of a woman whose marriage is failing for reasons she can't understand (probably her own selfishness and emotional ineptitude), and which she seems unable to do anything about, and the bad decisions she makes. It wasn't to my taste; such stories aren't. The other is an SF story about a resort in the Late Cretaceous where, for obscene amounts of money, one can see dinosaurs. It wasn't filled out enough to stand on its own, but the two stories, like the couple in them, seemed separated by an unbridged gulf and never really worked together.

Yoon Ha Lee's "Blue Ink" felt, to me, incomplete and inconclusive, a slice of life with little plot. That's not to say I disliked it; it just left me not fully satisfied.

John Shirley's "Two Shots from Fly's Photo Gallery" is one of the "travel in time by believing really hard" stories, but the story itself is well handled. A man who has lost his wife to suicide goes back to the gunfight at the OK Corral to save one of her ancestors, in the hope that this will change her family history for the better, and discovers that ultimately you can't save people.

Tom Purdom's "The Mists of Time", by contrast, provides a counter to the prevailing cynicism of our culture that says that everyone has base motives, no matter what it looks like, and there are no real heroes. It's also a good story in the interesting-plot sense.

Howard Waldrop's "The King of Where-I-Go" surprised me, and not in a good way. I don't expect a story by an old hand like Waldrop to be dull, rambling and confused, but this was. It needed a good cut and polish. I'm reasonably sure it doesn't get the science right, either, in terms of how long it takes for polio vaccine to provide protection.

Genevieve Valentine's "Bespoke" may have had a point, but I didn't notice it. It might have been something about fiddling while Rome burned. Competently written, but landed very softly.

Mary Robinette Kowal's "First Flight" has a good premise: you can only time travel within your own lifetime, so to go back to the Wright Brothers' first sustained flight you need a feisty grandmother. She gets off a great zinger at the end. Needs a few phrases corrected or polished.

Charlie Jane Anders' "The Time Travel Club" is, as I now expect from Anders, clever and funny and about losers. Not hopeless losers, though, not completely. I enjoyed it.

Paul Cornell's "The Ghosts of Christmas", though littered with interrobangs and confusing the terms schizoid and schizophrenic, is a fascinating story about memory, about how we change over our lifetimes, and about how we influence our families (especially at memorable times like holidays). Good premise, too.

Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette's "The Ile of Dogges" is a new take on the old idea of using time travel to rescue lost art, in this case an Elizabethan satire. The censor who can't quite bring himself to destroy a seditious play because it's so good is a wonderful character.

Kristine Katherine Rush's "September at Wall and Broad" is another piece that needs correction and polishing before publication, to smooth some awkward phrases and correct the mispunctuation of "United State's" and the misspelling of "chauffeur". I usually find that stories that have a lot of copy editing errors don't work well for me in other ways, and this is an example. The mystery ends up only half solved, and neither candidate for protagonist does much that's protagonistic.

Eileen Gunn's "Thought Experiment" is another think-yourself-through-time story. I felt the ending was a touch rushed, but generally enjoyed it.

Suzanne J. Willis's "Number 73 Glad Avenue" is surreal, but in a way I enjoyed. It's the lead-in to a novel, and I'll be watching for that.

Michael Moorcock's "The Lost Canal" is another disappointment from a master from whom I expect better. Full of telling and infodumping and references to stories that aren't this story and probably don't exist, its premise full of absurdities, its prose littered with exclamation points, it wasn't a good way to close the volume. I felt much the same way about the Ian McDonald story from the same retrofuture-Mars anthology ([b:Old Mars|15849699|Old Mars|George R.R. Martin||21595902]).

Speaking of sources, this is a reprint anthology. I was initially surprised, given the large number of mentions of Lightspeed, Strange Horizons and Clarkesworld in the resumes of the authors (and the soft endings of some of them, which I associate with those magazines), to read that more of these stories came from Asimov's than any other source. But then, where would you send a time travel story?

I've been critical of the individual stories in this volume, and some didn't work for me at all, but the collection as a whole I enjoyed. If, like me, you like to explore the idea of time travel, it's a good way to do so.

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Saturday 18 October 2014

Review: Tales of the Left Hand, Book 2

Tales of the Left Hand, Book 2
Tales of the Left Hand, Book 2 by John Meagher

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoyed this, though less so than the first book.

One of the problems with Book 2 of a fantasy series that's planned to be at least a trilogy is that it can contract Two Towers Syndrome, and be about people moving around and getting in position for the next book. We've had our introductions in Book 1, now Book 2 is "people travelling and their adventures along the way".

There are plenty of adventures along the way here, though they take a little while to get started. There are sword fights and a ship chase and a murderous bigot and desperate magic that goes horribly wrong. I'm not saying the story wasn't exciting, just that it was more transitional than it was conclusive.

The other thing I wasn't so keen on was the worldbuilding. I'm not a fan of the worldbuilding approach where the author takes whole Earth cultures - or the stereotypes about them - and just uses them unaltered. It annoyed me a little in the first book, but there it was mainly the accents and names of the people from various islands - there was a German one, a French one and so forth. (I'm listening to the Podiobooks version, narrated by the author, and different accents is part of how he distinguishes the characters. His voice work is very good, by the way.)

Here, though, we have a captain from the "French" culture, and he actually drops French words into his speech (and is a wine snob). We have a "Caribbean" character, as well, who speaks in a wince-inducing patois and wears dreadlocks. (He also, for some reason, speaks about himself in the third person, always an irritating habit in a character.) He comes within about an inch of being a Magical Negro, in fact, though the usual fate of the black character is barely averted by another trope: magical ability discovered under pressure.

So, less successful than Book 1, for me. Still, it's a good adventure yarn at its core, and I'll stick with it for Book 3.

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Sunday 12 October 2014

Review: Mabel the Lovelorn Dwarf

Mabel the Lovelorn Dwarf
Mabel the Lovelorn Dwarf by Sherry Peters

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I went into this book with low expectations. Everything about it, from the premise to the cover, said that someone was having some fun with a few tropes. I expected to be mildly amused, and hoped (more than expected) that it would be basically competent.

Well, I was mildly amused, but the author didn't seem to be trying for comedy; the absurdities of the tropes were played completely straight, not in the sense of "the author is apparently unaware of the absurdity" but in the sense of "the narrating character is unaware of the absurdity, because this is her everyday reality". Female dwarves with beards, dwarf/elf tension, axes - played completely straight. Even the obvious Tolkien references were slipped in as if they were the most natural thing in the world, not with a huge wink and a grin, which I appreciated. It was neither an unreflective tropefest nor a meta deconstruction, but something else, and I'm still not sure what, but I think it worked.

As far as competence goes, the basics are certainly there, particularly in terms of the story. The author credits an editor; as a former editor myself, I know that even a very good editor can miss things in a manuscript with a lot of errors, and this appears to have been the case, since some of the missed edits show evidence of fairly significant sentence-level writing problems in the original. There are a couple of comma splices and a dangling participle, the tense is frequently off, the author uses "anymore" when it should be "any more" (three times), apostrophes occasionally appear in the wrong places, we get "waivered" for "wavered" and the usual finger-slip typos, but I've seen plenty of books much worse - including several from major publishers - and on 90% of the pages I didn't notice any problems at all. There's a continuity error when double rooms somehow become singles, but apart from that, the story makes sense in its own terms. (Note, too, that I'm reading a Netgalley copy, supplied to me for purposes of review, and the final version may not have these issues.)

One of the odd things about it is that, while it's clearly a Tolkienesque, even D&D story, it's at the same time YA women's fiction. The young female dwarf who narrates it is fascinated by movie magazines (they're magical movies), believes she's in love with an elf film actor, has to deal with a bitchy, self-centred best friend who's more attractive than she is, has trouble balancing dating (or rather not dating, and worrying about it), sports, work and trying to figure out who she is while resisting her family's attempts to define her, and gets genuine help from a self-help book. As a man in my late 40s, I'm not the target audience, and I can't say that those particular concerns swept me up into her story, but that's no failure of the author's. It's a perfectly good story, well told.

I did wonder, going in, whether the premise was going to be enough to sustain such a long book. It sounded more like a novella. But I didn't feel that the pace dragged at all, or that it was unnecessarily padded.

Is this my new favourite author? No, but she's not writing for me. For the people she's writing for, she's done a fine job, and I think she'll find success.

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Thursday 9 October 2014

Review: Stupefying Stories November 2012...

Stupefying Stories November 2012...
Stupefying Stories November 2012... by Samuel M. Johnston

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I picked this up because the editor is now the editor of Straeon, and recommends reading it if you want to know what he likes. Initially, I sampled it on my Kindle, but I was enjoying the stories enough that I bought it.

Not every story worked for me, but that's usual with any collection, and most of them I enjoyed. If they have a common weakness, it's that the endings are often "soft" rather than decisive.

Overall, they reminded me of the classic mid-century writers Fredric Brown, Robert Sheckley and, occasionally, R.A. Lafferty, suitably updated. That's a good thing, in my book. The premises are often absurd; in a few, that tips over the line into too much absurdity for me, particularly when the absurdities are apparently meant seriously.

"Queen of Sheba" I found well written and well observed.

"Wednesday's Child" was moving and beautiful.

"Snatching Baby Delilah" is one of those stories where you're not completely sure of the narrator's reliability (or sanity) by the end of the story. The Kindle sample finished during this story, and I wanted to know how it ended, so I bought the magazine.

"Nonsense 101" was, indeed, nonsense, but enjoyable. It was the most R.A. Lafferty-like of the stories.

"Lucky" is a real Fredric Brown-style story in its dilemma, and more of a Sheckley in its resolution.

"The Ants Go Marching", though weighted down a bit with excessive detail, especially at the beginning, ends up as a decent parable of colonialism and resistance.

"Lover's Knot" is fantastical and has a wonderful allegorical, dreamlike quality.

"Girl Without a Name" is marred by distracting errors, like the main character's hair being "plated" instead of "plaited". It's post-apocalyptic, something I especially dislike, and overall didn't work well for me as a story.

"Toilet Gnomes at War" is very Fredric Brown, light despite the desperate straits of the protagonist.

"Moondust" is built on two absurdities taken seriously: moondust is a drug, and pilots take it to enable them to make it through long space trips. Didn't work for me. (You definitely do not want a stoned person piloting anything.)

"Citizen Astronauts" is built on multiple absurdities taken seriously. In particular, valuing a business, booking a surgery or anything involving any large project or any branch of government is not going to happen by tomorrow, and, again, you don't just shove an average person into space exploration with no training. I didn't find the ending either convincing or emotionally satisfying either.

"Heartbreath" starts with some confusing language, which at first obscures the fact that it's rather an old trope. It doesn't help that the author manages to misspell the name of one of the characters twice.

"Revolver" is a bit of a mess, several stories crushed into one through a device of reincarnation; part mysticism, part pulp action, and the parts don't fit together well, or work for me individually.

"Office Demons" is a nice parable about something that is obvious very quickly (to the reader much earlier than to the protagonist), but still well told.

"Number Station" is another Brownish story, perhaps too short and with too much "tell".

Do I think I can write a story for Straeon? Yes. Yes, I do, and will enjoy it, too.

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Monday 6 October 2014

Review: Pratchett's Women

Pratchett's Women
Pratchett's Women by Tansy Rayner Roberts

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I discovered something about myself by reading this book, which is always a worthwhile thing.

What I discovered was that, although I rejoice greatly at the presence of strong female characters in a book, I don't necessarily notice their absence as much. Now that I'm aware, hopefully that won't be true so much.

Tansy Rayner Roberts, herself an award-winning fantasy author, analyses most (not all) of Terry Pratchett's books from a feminist perspective, and finds them... mixed. She praises the improvement from the early busty bimbos (who were, at least, people with lines and opinions and wants, if still stereotypes) to the later women like Cheery Littlebottom, Lady Sybil, Susan Death and, of course, the witches, while still criticising a few significant slips even in the later volumes of the series.

A notable omission for me was the Moist von Lipwick books, especially Making Money; I would have liked her perspective on Adorabelle Dearheart a.k.a. Spike, on the elderly widow of the banking magnate and on the golem Gladys, who is female only because she decides she is. Moist is mentioned, so I know she's read the books, but the analysis of them is missing.

What is here is an interesting perspective, always personal but with wider resonance, on Pratchett's treatment of female characters. It shows strong signs of its blog-series origins, including the need for an editor; words like "to", "the", "more" and "is" don't always make it from the author's brain to her fingers, and she uses the word "conflagration" when I'm reasonably sure she means "conflation". It's also fairly brief, but none the worse for that (although, as I say, I'd like to see her analysis of the Moist books).

I'd recommend it to anyone who's interested in non-ranty feminist perspectives and fantasy fiction, and who's read the Pratchett books (since there are multiple spoilers).

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Saturday 4 October 2014

Review: Thorn Fall

Thorn Fall
Thorn Fall by Lindsay Buroker

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If there's a word that defines Lindsay Buroker's books, it's "consistent". She never fails to produce an enjoyable story with action, tension, some of the best banter in the business, and a plucky, ill-assorted team barely surviving mass destruction.

This is another. It's early in this particular team's arc, and they haven't built up a lot of competence yet; they waffle around a bit near the beginning, and make some poorly-thought-out decisions that get them into trouble, but I confidently predict that after a couple more books they'll be much more effective (though still surfing on the edge of chaos and disaster).

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Wednesday 1 October 2014

Review: Honor's Heir

Honor's Heir
Honor's Heir by C.J. Brightley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What a joy it is to find an author I can rely on to not plunge the knife in.

I make no secret of the fact that I'm not a fan of grimdark, and if anything is the opposite of grimdark, it's this series. Characters are unequivocally good people. Characters are allowed to be happy and love one another. When characters are happy and love one another, it's not a buildup to a terrible reversal in which Tragedy! Strikes! Everyone they care about! (though it can, and does, lead to some tense moments).

This isn't to say that there's no action; there's certainly action, but it's not happening every minute. It's much more a book about relationships than it is about events, and as such, it reminds me of [a:Debora Geary|4654545|Debora Geary|]. It's about the powerful things that happen when people are kind to one another.

I know the author on Google+, and she gave me an unsolicited free copy because I'd reviewed the previous books in the series. I'd gladly pay for future books, because sometimes it's nice to relax and know that things will work out all right because good people are on the case.

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Review: Tales of the Left Hand, Book 1

Tales of the Left Hand, Book 1
Tales of the Left Hand, Book 1 by John Meagher

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I don't always want an action-packed adventure, but when I do, I want a good one. This is a good one.

There are pirates. There's court intrigue. Secret passages, magic, assassins, rooftop chases, sword fights, it's all here.

I listened to the author's excellent reading via (and tipped him there, because it's worth some money), so I can't comment on the editing of the ebook version. I did spot a few very slightly misused words in the audio version.

My only other criticism is that the main character seems a bit innocent and nice for someone who's been sailing round with pirates for ten years, and the assassin/swordfighter likewise. They're delightful characters, though, and I forgive it.

I've started listening to the second book, and I'm glad to hear that a third and fourth are on the way.

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Review: Age of Anansi

Age of Anansi
Age of Anansi by James Lovegrove

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Three and a half stars, rounded to four. Not because it wasn't well done - it was - but because it wasn't entirely to my taste.

I love a trickster tale, a heist, or a rogue. A fictional one, that is. I've known a couple of rogues in real life, and they were annoying and ultimately tragic people. Perhaps that was where this book fell down for me: it was too real.

I like a charming, loveable rogue, someone I can root for even while watching them be the architect of their own demise, someone who's fundamentally good-hearted. With this protagonist, I was more and more eager to see him get his comeuppance. Arrogant, prejudiced, capable of going against his own morality if it served his interests, he was thoroughly unlikeable, without any redeeming qualities apart from being hard-working, intelligent, and feeling guilty when he deliberately did something he knew he shouldn't do. He wasn't even amoral; he had a morality and he transgressed against it.

I also like clever tricks, cunning heists, overcomplicated plans that are bound to fail. What I got here was cruel practical jokes that by and large succeeded, in a way that made people miserable to no good end.

The book is written with a level of competence I don't often see, with just a couple of minor typos and no misused vocabulary words that I spotted. It just wasn't the story I was hoping for.

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