Friday 21 February 2014

Review: Seraphina

Seraphina by Rachel Hartman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Early on, I thought this could be a 5-star book. It almost missed out on the fifth star, barely, because it somehow wasn't as compelling as I felt it could have been, but on balance I awarded the extra star for beautiful writing, an admirable protagonist, good worldbuilding and a well-constructed plot.

It's certainly a well-edited book. I spotted five errors: two sentences joined by a comma-splice; an excess closing quotation mark partway through a speech; the use of the word "palpated" in place of "palpitated"; a missing comma before a term of address; and a missing apostrophe in the phrase "goat's beard". If you follow my reviews, you'll know that it's usual for me to find a number of errors in double figures even in books that have been professionally edited, so this is a mark of an author who makes few errors, an editor who catches many, or some combination.

In addition, the language is often beautiful, going beyond efficient prose to something more literary. There's even one of my personal favourite things, a made-up phrase that is clearly a cliche in the setting, though it isn't one in our world: "Don't pay Pau-Henoa until he gets you to the other side," which in context means "don't count your chickens before they're hatched" or "don't jinx it".

The voice of the first-person protagonist, wry, even sarcastic, is wonderfully done. She's a pragmatic person who doesn't take herself too seriously; when she falls off her bed while ill and wakes up on the floor, the first thing she notices is that she needs to clean under the bed more often. She's decisive, practical and courageous, and I never felt that other people's admiration for her was forced by the author (as is far too often the case). She merited admiration.

She has a secret, the kind of thing that you have to conceal from everyone lest they despise you, and the author does a fine job of putting us in the head of someone in that situation: the constant vigilance, the threat of exposure, the self-doubt shading to self-hatred, the lack of trust in others. "I couldn't tell her that lying wasn't so much something I did as something I was," she says. The story isn't just an adventure, it's a story with meaning beyond itself, a story about the human condition as well as about these particular people.

That brings me, indirectly, to what I thought was weakest in the book, which very nearly lost it the fifth star. Even though the plot involved plenty of conflict and threat and taking action to avert bad consequences (sometimes unsuccessfully), I felt it lacked a sense of urgency somehow. I can't put my finger on exactly why. Clearly, a book can't simultaneously have literary depth and be a fast-paced thriller (at least, I've never seen this done, and I can't imagine how it would be), but the pacing, or the emotional tone, or something seemed a bit languid to me, despite the high stakes (personal and political). Maybe the wry, pragmatic tone of the narration works against the urgency that a more self-dramatising narrator would convey.

The worldbuilding is interesting. Even though a lot of elements clearly come from Renaissance Europe, they're given sufficient twists that it's not just cultural copypasta; it's "inspired by" rather than "based on". There are hints that the dragons have a high level of technology, beyond what the humans are equipped to understand. (I didn't mention the dragons? There are dragons. They're magnificent, even when taking human shape, and they struggle with the relative value of rationality and emotion.)

The ending, while a resolution, isn't a neat, everything-tied-up resolution. It has dimensions and layers and possibilities and built-in conflict for the next book - which I will definitely be looking for.

"We were all monsters and bastards, and we were all beautiful," says Seraphina, near the end. That's the book in a sentence. Read it, and find out why.

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Saturday 15 February 2014

Review: Clean Sweep

Clean Sweep
Clean Sweep by Ilona Andrews

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When I started this, I'd forgotten that I'd previously read some of the same author team's urban fantasy series, the Kate Daniels books. While they aren't my favourite urban fantasies, that's more because I dislike post-apocalyptic than because of any particular flaw in the books.

This was also good, something a bit fresh and different. Like [a:Lindsay Buroker|4512224|Lindsay Buroker|] and [a:Brian Rush|3467706|Brian Rush|], these authors are putting aliens in their urban fantasy; the werewolves and vampires come from other planets, and the Innkeepers are powerful magic users (or have sufficiently advanced technology that they seem to be) who keep refuges where alien travellers can enjoy safety in a kind of Accorded Neutral Ground.

One of the fresh aspects was that the first-person female main character, though attracted to both the werewolf and the vampire, not only knows that getting involved with them wouldn't be smart, she actually does the smart thing. She's competent and capable, chooses her allies carefully, struggles against the odds, chooses to get involved in a problem even though she's not supposed to because she has regard for her community and its people, and in general ticks all the boxes as a hero I will cheer for. As you'd expect from such experienced writers, the plot flows smoothly and doesn't rely on coincidence.

I'm not clear where on the publishing spectrum this book falls. The couple who write as Ilona Andrews are traditionally published, but this was a hobby project originally written on their website. They credit a copy editor, whose work is decent but not flawless; I noted nine errors, ranging from a minor character's name being spelled two different ways, through some missing minor words in sentences, to a couple of misspellings and two incorrectly placed apostrophes. Since these apparently also escaped sixteen beta readers and the fans who watched the story unfold episode by episode on the website, most readers probably won't notice them.

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Wednesday 12 February 2014

Review: Almost Adept

Almost Adept
Almost Adept by Olga Godim

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book's title describes it well: it's almost adept, apart from a few significant stumbles.

Firstly, I get the impression that the author's first language may not be English, and some odd phrasings have survived the editing process. "It's only a day ride" (instead of "day's ride"), "in a nearest town", "on the Varelia's side of the mountains", "every each way" (instead of "every which way"; this appears twice), "she was in such a shock", "only in extreme condition", "could I have some snack before dinner?", and "after the injuries like yours" are all phrases that I noticed as being odd. Some of them may simply be incompletely revised sentences.

There are a few words that aren't quite the right word choice: "depravations" instead of "depravities", "occupants" instead of "occupiers", "largess" used to mean "riches one owns" instead of, as it should mean, "riches one distributes", "forerunner" instead of "progenitor", and "wilted" used of fruit, when it's a word that normally applies to leaves.

There are a couple of anachronistic word choices: "decibels", "dating", "megaton". The language, too, wobbles between relatively formal English and modern American informal, which I found occasionally distracting.

There are a few outright misspellings: "puss" for "pus" (though it's correctly spelled in another place), the obvious typo "fiend" for "friend", "pour" for "poor" and a "you" for "your" (another common typo).

I only noticed one comma error, though. That's something.

So it could have done with another edit. The story itself is satisfying enough, for the most part, though I did think that several of the events and character choices seemed driven by what would work for the plot rather than what was sensible or realistic. For example, the main character, for reasons that are never fully explained, needs to lose her virginity before she can become a fully recognised Adept, and this is a plot driver. She lets herself be arrested and taken to jail, not because she doesn't have a number of other options (which are helpfully listed), but because she's curious about the experience, and this places her where she can conveniently rescue someone else. When the governor's wife is kidnapped, by a startlingly convenient coincidence she's the main male character's former sweetheart (never previously mentioned), and he has a locket with her hair (never previously mentioned), and this enables her to be tracked magically. The magic itself is all kinds of convenient, and apparently capable of doing anything.

Even with these flaws, though, I enjoyed the journey. There was genuine tension, despite the all-powerful magic, which isn't easy to achieve. The young female protagonist is brave and determined, although she's remarkably resilient in the face of bad experiences. When horrifying things happen to children right next to her (and I could have done with a warning about that, by the way, along with the extended torture scene), she is shocked in the moment, but next day she seems cheerful and almost carefree and the incident is hardly referred to again. Apparently it was mainly there to emphasise how very bad a man the villain is.

Still, with another round of edits, less reliance on coincidence, and more care to ensure that story elements aren't just there to drive the plot, arise more naturally and have more realistic consequences, this would be a very fine book. I enjoyed it enough that I could largely overlook the flaws I've mentioned, so it gets four stars. On my subscale within four stars, ranging from 0 (barely above mediocre) to 9 (just short of amazing), it scores a 2, mainly because I liked the characters.

I received a copy of this book from the author for purposes of review.

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