Friday 29 August 2014

Review: The Adventures of Sally

The Adventures of Sally
The Adventures of Sally by P.G. Wodehouse

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An early Wodehouse, with several differences from the successful formula he later established.

Firstly, the main character is an American woman, rather than a British man. There is a British man who's an important character, and he's much the kind of not-too-bright but fundamentally decent Brit Wodehouse made a career of writing about, but the eponymous Sally is definitely the focus of the story.

Secondly, there's more seriousness and less comedy than in the books he's best remembered for. People are affected by financial difficulties and have to take soul-destroying jobs to recover. There are mentions of the Spanish flu, though nobody dies of it on stage. I don't regard this necessarily as a fault; it's done well, and the later Wodehouse books are notorious for the degree to which nothing in them really matters except to the characters involved.

What he hadn't quite perfected here, and what he did perfect later on, was making essentially incompetent characters enjoyable to read about. One way he achieved that effect was by making the incompetents very proactive. They would always be trying things to get out of their difficulties, even though they never worked. Ginger, the male lead, doesn't do this. Not only is he not very bright, he's passive and has to be chivvied (one would almost say nagged) into doing anything by Sally. Sally herself is not highly competent or unusually proactive either. She's clearly brighter than any of the men, yet she chooses to hand over her money to her brother to invest, knowing he's lost all of his own, rather than cutting out the middleman and investing directly.

The romantic direction of the book was always obvious, but I was never fully convinced by it, partly because I agreed with Ginger that he was "not much of a chap". On the whole, though, I enjoyed the book and saw in it frequent glimpses of the charm that Wodehouse later turned into his consistent style.

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Review: Aurealis #72

Aurealis #72
Aurealis #72 by Michael Pryor (Editor)

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Full disclosure: I've submitted to Aurealis in the past, unsuccessfully. I don't think that has unduly influenced my review, but it was the reason that I took up their half-year free subscription offer to see what they were buying.

This is the first issue of the magazine I've read, and so far I'm unimpressed. The copy editing is very poor, with missing apostrophes, missing words, and homonym errors abounding. The two stories themselves weren't to my taste, sordid, pessimistic tales, but others may disagree with me there.

This issue opens with an editorial talking about what the magazine wants to publish. It's the usual stuff: well written, original, startling. I didn't find either of the stories, or the non-fiction article or the reviews, particularly well-written, original or startling, myself.

The first story has two four-hundred-year-old immortals who remember Shakespeare. They're jaded and alienated, and have either become atheists since Shakespeare's time or were, unusually for the time, atheists all along (this is never explored). They appear to have gained no wisdom in 400 years, speak very much in contemporary slang, and when there's a flashback to Shakespeare's day the period language isn't convincing or competent (Shakespeare makes a basic grammatical error).

The second story involves uplifted animal/human hybrids, and is basically a noir detective story.

The main article is an extremely basic, and not very up-to-date, piece on the importance of reviews for indie authors.

I have another four issues left in my subscription, so hopefully this is an anomaly, but I'm no longer expecting great things.

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Thursday 28 August 2014

Review: Dragonhunters

Dragonhunters by Sabrina Chase

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It's a year and a half since I read the first in the series (The Last Mage Guardian), and since then I've read at least 150 other books, so I would have appreciated a few more brief reminders of who all the characters were and what happened in the first book. Apart from that, this was a well-written and enjoyable story, and excellently edited.

Sabrina Chase's steampunk-adjacent alternate world has different names for familiar countries (close enough that you can tell which real-world countries they're meant to be, but different enough that you're reminded that it's not our world), an appealing cast of brave characters, and a well-choreographed climactic fight. I wish more steampunk was like this; it's well-executed and lives up to the promise of its premise, something I rarely say about other books in the genre. I could stand for it to be a little more over-the-top, even, with more play made of the magical devices.

Definitely an author I'm keeping on my watch list.

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Saturday 23 August 2014

Review: Unexpected Stories

Unexpected Stories
Unexpected Stories by Octavia E. Butler

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The late Octavia Butler wrote brilliant, challenging science fiction along more or less the same lines as Ursula Le Guin: the speculations are often anthropological, and she's fascinated by how people interact. I read one of her Xenogenesis novels years ago, and have to admit that I haven't read anything else by her since (up until this volume), because I found it the kind of powerful, disturbing book that I can only read occasionally.

I was excited to hear, though, that a couple of her unpublished stories had been found and would be published under the title Unexpected Stories, so when I saw this volume on Netgalley I asked for a review copy.

They're very fine stories. If Goodreads permitted half stars, I'd give them four and a half. They're beautifully written, with an easy competence that I see all too rarely, and the speculations themselves - particularly in the first story - are out of the ordinary way. The editing is clean, much to my relief, since I just read a book from the same publisher that was packed with errors; I suspect that not having been scanned from an old printed book worked to their advantage, as did the author's ability to write a clean manuscript in the first instance. I don't love them so much as to give them five stars, but that last half-star is nothing to do with the quality, only my own taste.

To say that Butler wrote about race would be like saying that Jane Austen wrote about the role of women in society: true, but inadequate. In both cases, the theme is everywhere in their work, but because it's so pervasive it isn't always what the story is directly or ostensibly about. In the Xenogenesis novels, for example, humanity's genes have been co-opted by aliens, a development which, while it arises directly out of Butler's concerns, thoughts and feelings about race and race relations, isn't directly "about" that. The same is true of the novella "A Necessary Being," the first of these two stories. The people in it are literally people of colour. They're able to change their skin colour to a degree, in order to camouflage themselves, and it also changes to signal emotion, but their base or resting skin colour determines their place or role in society. The rare blue people (the Hao) are the leaders, greener people are judges and hunters, and the most yellow people are artisans or farmers. People mostly marry within their caste, presumably reinforcing whatever genetic process produces the colours, though Hao can be born of judges sometimes as well as from other Hao. Hao are so valuable that the main character's father was captured and crippled to prevent him from leaving the tribe, even though one of the great things about Hao is that they're better fighters than anyone else.

That was a little surprising to me. It's fairly clear from the narrative that Hao actually are, objectively, better fighters, that having blue skin isn't just something that makes other people expect you to be a good leader and becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If this was a simple parable of racial expectations, I would have anticipated the self-fulfilling-prophecy angle. But Butler isn't just working in simple, obvious parables here. It's a story of expectations, betrayal, and finding ways to get around the unjust ways in which your society works, despite the constraints that fence you in, and that is the way in which it's a story about race.

The second and shorter story, "Childfinder," has a much more direct relevance to race. In it, and the author's note which follows it, we see a pessimistic view of race relations, in which racially-based conflict inevitably destroys the possibility of utopia. I seem to remember reading somewhere that it was written for Harlan Ellison's Dangerous Visions anthology (there was no introduction to the volume in the Netgalley version I have for review; I'm going to suggest one to the publisher, since I think the background of the stories is important). While I don't share the author's pessimism, I understand it.

Butler's early death robbed science fiction of a powerful and unique voice, and these newly rediscovered stories are both a reminder of that and also something to treasure in themselves. They've encouraged me to revisit the Xenogenesis novels and look into the author's other books.

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Friday 22 August 2014

Review: Sargasso of Space

Sargasso of Space
Sargasso of Space by Andre Norton

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Andre Norton was one of the first, if not the first, SF authors I read, at the age of ten or eleven. Our school library had several of her books, including this one and its sequels, and I read them multiple times and loved them. When I saw that it was cheap on Amazon, I picked it up, wondering how well it would stand up to an adult re-reading.

As a story, it stood up surprisingly well. I went in expecting exactly what I got: a pulpish space opera boys' adventure. I use the term "boys' adventure" advisedly; from the evidence of this book, you would conclude that only the male gender existed in the galaxy. Even the ship's cat is male. And the author felt compelled to call herself "Andrew North" in order to write it. It was 1955; it would be about another decade before very many people said, "Wait a minute, SF can be by, for, and about women, too," though C.L. Moore had been pioneering that movement since the 1930s. Setting this aside, though, it's a story with suspense, excitement, and an underdog protagonist - though Dane doesn't, in this first volume, solve very many of the problems that the crew encounters. It's very much a team effort.

The crew is, at least, racially diverse, though there are stereotypical moments: the "negro" character says, at one point, "Oh, Lawdy!" and the crewman of Japanese descent, though many generations removed from Japan, is short, practices martial arts, and speaks in a formal cadence. But they are full characters, not just stereotypes, and take effective action to forward the plot.

What really let the book down for me was the editing. Firstly, the editing of the original; Norton is the mistress of the comma splice, and doesn't have much idea of how to use a comma in general. (She also says "chaffing" when she means "chafing".) What really degraded my reading experience, though, and lost the book the fourth star, is the editing - or complete lack of editing - of the scanned version published by Open Road.

When a book is scanned - particularly an old, cheaply printed book - there are often errors of character recognition. It takes a good going-over from an experienced copy editor to get it into publishable shape. Open Road appears to have skipped this step, even the abbreviated version of it where you throw the text into MS Word and run a spell-check, since there are a number of instances of misread words which aren't in any dictionary.

I marked over 80 errors in this relatively short book, and I wasn't even counting most of the comma issues, or the instances where a word that was broken across two lines in the printed book has come out with a hyphen and a space in the middle of it. Taking those in as well, there are probably more than a hundred places where my attention was distracted from the story by an easily avoidable error.

The CEO of Open Road was formerly the CEO of HarperCollins, the large publisher which, more than any other, features in my Goodreads "seriously-needs-editing" shelf (and has produced the worst-edited books on that shelf that come from a major publisher). It appears that the same lack of editorial excellence - in fact, lack of basic editorial competence - is in place at her new venture as well. Accordingly, I won't be buying any more of the several Norton books which Open Road has available for sale, and I'm somewhat dreading my next read, another from the same publisher.

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Sunday 17 August 2014

Review: Fearsome Magics

Fearsome Magics
Fearsome Magics by Jonathan Strahan

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

After I finished (or mostly finished) reading this anthology, I realised what I didn't like about it: many, in fact most, of the stories are arguably horror, and I don't enjoy horror as a genre. I went in hoping for a book that was entirely fantasy, though the "Fearsome" part of the title probably should have warned me.

I did have my hesitations, because having read the same editor's Best of the Year picks, I knew that his taste and mine were very different. I decided, though, based on the names of the authors (particularly K.J. Parker and Garth Nix), that there would probably be some stories I liked, and indeed there were. They were in the minority, though, or close to it; the stories I liked even somewhat only account for half of the total, hence the three-star rating.

The collection starts out well, with "The Dun Letter" by Christopher Rowe. Like several other stories in the volume, it takes the idea of the changeling or the lost elf princess and plays with it. I particularly appreciated how the protagonist wasn't depicted as perfect; she isn't a good student or unusually diligent, and yet she takes care of her grandmother in a matter-of-fact way that suggests she thinks that's just what you do.

What tipped me over into requesting the book from Netgalley (who provided a copy for purposes of review) was seeing that there was a new Garth Nix story of Sir Hereward and Mister Fitz ("Home is the Haunter"). Unfortunately, I was disappointed by it. I've read the previous three stories with these characters, and reading this one brought me to the realisation that each one is basically the same story with new furniture. Sir Hereward is generally the viewpoint character, and because of his background, his sense of honour and his commitments, he has very little in the way of protagonism; he makes choices, but you know what they're going to be ahead of time. His companion, the self-willed puppet Mister Fitz, is indeed self-willed, more so than Sir Hereward. In this uncorrected proof, there were also several basic editing errors in this story, more than in the others in the collection, and that probably reduced my enjoyment. I did enjoy it - Mister Fitz is a wonderful character, and it's an interesting world - but I felt I was reading a story I'd already read.

Isobelle Carmody's "Grigori's Solution" I didn't enjoy. It's told in a stiff, distant style, and starts out with a long justification of why it's a story about magic, despite how it appears, which I thought should have been unnecessary. It persistently refers to an equation as a "sum". It describes the solution of the equation as somehow (in a way which didn't succeed in suspending my disbelief) causing the end of the universe or at least the world; I'm fairly sure there's a classic story somewhere that's already done this. I know there's a classic story that does what the rest of the story does, describes people's reaction to the end, and does it much better although coming to many of the same conclusions (it's by Bradbury or Silverberg or one of those guys, and I think it was published in the 70s). In other words, nothing new, not enjoyably told, the central conceit is weak, and the author also misses an opportunity to reference climate change skepticism. In fact, because climate change skepticism exists, I found the idea that the population at large would believe that the end was coming to be unconvincing.

Tony Ballantyne's "Dream London Hospital" is distinctly horror, and there's not much in the way of magic except in its surrealism. Not a favourite.

As I expected, I enjoyed the K.J. Parker story, "Safe House". It's told in the humourous, world-weary style that Parker does so well, it's a clever idea well worked out, and this was enough for me not to mind the dark and tragic aspects to it.

I also enjoyed Ellen Klages' "Hey, Presto!", an adventure story (a schoolgirl adventure story, no less, though set in the holidays) with no actual magic and not much fearsomeness, but a strong young female protagonist.

James Bradley's "The Changeling" is one of those stories that walks a fine line, so you're never sure whether the magical explanation is the true one, or if the "changeling" is just what we would these days call autistic. It's well done, but darker than I personally prefer.

Karin Tidbeck's "Migration", like other Tidbeck stories I've read, never resolves into anything that makes straightforward sense; it's strange and surreal throughout. I don't have a problem with that, though, and she does it well. However, it didn't give me much to hold onto.

Justina Robson's "On Skybolt Mountain" gave me the feeling that the author was pantsing her way through without knowing what came next, and changed her mind several times about what kind of story it was and what was happening. The names at the beginning, and a few other details, give a nineteenth-century American frontier feel, but then we're in some kind of a sword-and-sorcery setting, and at the very end the witch becomes something else entirely with no foreshadowing that I could see.

I usually enjoy Nina Kiriki Hoffman's lyrical fantastica, and "Where Our Edges Lie" is no exception. It's similar, in many ways, to "The Dun Letter" earlier in the collection, and plays again with the "changeling" idea. Both stories make a similar point about holding onto relationships being the most important thing.

The same point is present in Frances Hardinge's "Devil's Bridge", an original idea well executed, again with a strong young female protagonist (I like those).

Kaaron Warren's "The Nursery Corner" is one of several stories by Australian authors in the volume (the editor is also Australian), but the only one with an Australian setting. I'd call it light horror. Well done, but not really to my personal taste.

I didn't read all of the last two stories in the volume, since they took a horror or dark direction so early on and it seemed clear that they wouldn't be ones I'd enjoy. They are "Aberration" by Genevieve Valentine and "Ice in the Bedroom" by Robert Shearman.

So, out of the 14 stories in this volume, there were five that I straightforwardly enjoyed. There was one that I somewhat enjoyed but felt wasn't taking a fresh direction with the characters (the Nix), one that I quite liked but didn't love because the surrealism didn't give me enough to identify with (the Tidbeck), three that I considered well done but that were darker than I like, two that I thought weren't very well done, and two that lost my interest or willingness to follow along relatively early.

This collection confirms for me what I thought about the earlier Strahan anthology I reviewed: it's by an editor whose taste doesn't have a lot of overlap with mine, and I probably shouldn't pick up other anthologies which he edits. I'll miss out on a few good stories that way, but too few to make it worth wading through the others.

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Thursday 14 August 2014

Review: Blood Charged

Blood Charged
Blood Charged by Lindsay Buroker

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoyed the first and second entries in what I'm glad to see is now officially a series. This one has less romance and more action (despite the handsome cover model). It worked for me just as well as the first two, if not better.

I did roll my eyes a little when, about 70% of the way through, we started getting hints that this is yet another Buroker series where the magic is tied up somehow with aliens. I don't have a problem with this idea in and of itself, but this is now at least the third time she's used it in different fantasy settings (I haven't read one of her series, so it may be the fourth, for all I know). Still, she does change it up a little each time.

The secret of her success seems to be to keep some elements similar between books (the humour, the technology-magic mix, the aliens, the diverse team-ups, the light romance, the penetration of fortresses in the rule-breaking service of the Right Side), make enough changes that it isn't simply the same book rewritten, and write them really quickly. It continues to be a winning formula for me so far.

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Wednesday 13 August 2014

Review: Dracula

Dracula by Bram Stoker

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I listened to one of the several Librivox versions of this novel on my commute, and while one of the readers was notably incompetent (mispronouncing words and misplacing sentence emphasis), I enjoyed it very much otherwise.

It is a 19th-century novel, with all that implies. Firstly, it's a bit overwritten by modern standards. The description of the storm in which Dracula's ship comes to Whitby, for example, could have stood to be a lot shorter, and so could many of the speeches, but reading 19th-century fiction you expect this. If I'd been reading text, I would have skimmed; as it was, I tuned out for a while and came back when the details started seeming significant again.

The characters are also pretty clearly divided into the blackest and the whitest of hats. The description by Dr. Seward of his friend Van Helsing, before Van Helsing actually appears, is laudatory to the point of Mary Sue (and Van Helsing shares a first name with the author). Mina Harker, we are told, is very intelligent and brave, but to the author's credit we are also shown this, and she's the best and strongest character in the book - even hobbled by the sexism of her society.

My remaining criticism is that there's a great deal of coincidence that goes towards keeping the cast compact. Jonathan Harker goes to Castle Dracula in his role as a lawyer to do some conveyancing of a London property for the Count. The Count's ship happens to land at Whitby, where Harker's fiancee (later wife) Mina happens to be on holiday with her friend Lucy, who happens to sleepwalk and so fall into the Count's power. Among Lucy's rejected suitors (she's one of those characters who everyone's attracted to) happens to be Dr. Seward, who happens to run a lunatic asylum right next door to the property that Dracula has bought, and happens to have an old friend (Van Helsing) who knows what to do about vampires. If it wasn't for the large number of lower-class minor characters, mostly unnamed, who are bribed to give information or perform various services, I would have thought the population of Britain was approximately a dozen people.

It's a testament to the author's skill, though, and the power of the character, that even though the eponymous Dracula disappears offstage for most of the book, his presence is still palpable and his choices and actions drive the whole story. There's a genuine air of menace and tension that's well sustained throughout, and comes to a rousing climax at the end. This is a foundational novel for an entire genre (not the first vampire novel, but certainly the best-known of the early ones), and it deserves its classic status.

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Sunday 10 August 2014

Review: A Clockwork Heart

A Clockwork Heart
A Clockwork Heart by Liesel Schwarz

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The problem I have with steampunk is that, with very few exceptions, the execution falls so far short of the concept.

The concept here is promising. We have a world in which the Fae are common, and in which "spark" (a kind of liquid electricity) powers wonderful machines. (Battersea Power Station in London is replaced with Battersea Spark Monastery, where monks - always described as "little", for some reason - practice electromancy to supply the city with power.) We have a heroine who pilots airships and is also the current incarnation of the Pythian Oracle, and a hero who's given up his warlock powers in order to be with her. We have villains who are stealing people off the streets of London, replacing their hearts with magical-mechanical devices, and turning them into an undead army. Sweet!

I read the previous book in the series, and rated it three stars, largely because it was overly troperiffic and because I didn't feel that the elements of urban fantasy, steampunk and romance blended all that well. The romance, in particular, seemed forced and clumsy and excessively telegraphed. But it was well enough written that I had hopes for improvement in Book 2. Here's what I said in my final paragraph:

"I enjoyed the Professor's dialogue, and wished that we'd seen him earlier (I certainly hope that if there is a sequel, as the ending signals, he gets more screen time). The climax, though troperific, was suspenseful and kept me reading. And I didn't want to shake the heroine very often at all, which for an urban-fantasy or steampunk heroine is impressive."

Well, the Professor didn't get much screen time. The tropes were a bit less over the top, but the worst one, the one that ruined my enjoyment of the book, the one that made me want to, not shake the heroine, because that would be wrong, but certainly shout at her repeatedly, was that the entire plot was built on her doing obviously stupid things with little or no thought of the consequences, no plan, and no backup. Over and over and over.

Well, not the entire plot. A significant part of the plot was built on the hero - who's lived more than one human lifetime as a powerful warlock, and is smart and wise and generally savvy - doing an obviously stupid thing with no thought of the consequences, no plan, and no backup, and not telling anyone that he was going off to do it. Nobody in the entire book seems to have the strategic sense and insight of a three-day-old kitten.

The climax this time involves the heroine going into a dangerous situation inadequately prepared (again) and being rescued by basically every minor character in the book. Then her husband is lost, not dead exactly but separated from her in a realm that she can totally go to, as has been repeatedly established, and she falls into depression and apparently doesn't eat for three months, while her friends and family abandon her, completely out of character, to go on with their own happy endings. Then one day she wakes up and decides to go flying again.

There's also the "Chosen One refuses to learn how to use powers, won't listen to advice, suddenly uses powers at crisis moment" trope, though it's at least a little bit subverted by the fact that it's too little, too late, and her use of the powers isn't actually effective. The title "Oracle" implies to me that she's able to communicate revelations, but that doesn't seem to be what the oracle powers actually do; what they do is never really made completely clear, because she refuses to study, but it's not that. It's something to do with the barrier between the Light and Shadow worlds, instead.

On the upside, apart from the usual number of small slips this is well edited, and I at least didn't trip constantly over grammatical errors and misused words, as I usually do when reading steampunk. So there's that.

I received a copy via Netgalley for purposes of review. I also received a copy of the third book, but I've deleted it off my Kindle unread. This one was just too disappointing.

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Tuesday 5 August 2014

Review: Two Hundred and Twenty-One Baker Streets: An Anthology of Holmesian Tales Across Time and Space

Two Hundred and Twenty-One Baker Streets: An Anthology of Holmesian Tales Across Time and Space
Two Hundred and Twenty-One Baker Streets: An Anthology of Holmesian Tales Across Time and Space by Kasey Lansdale

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Sherlock Holmes has been remixed and reimagined many times over the years. The character, and his associated characters (Watson, in particular), and even the minutiae like the 221B Baker Street address, are so iconic that they're still recognisable even after considerable distortion.

Take Elementary, for example (which the editor references in the introduction). Watson is an Asian woman, but that's comparatively cosmetic compared with the really big change to the character: she's a competent detective, not Sherlock's dense foil and occasional muscle. And yet the show works, largely because it's well-written and develops the relationships between the characters in ways that are continually surprising and yet make sense.

The premise of this collection is to create such alternative Sherlocks, Watsons and 221B Baker Streets. Some are science fiction, some are alternate history, at least one is clearly fantasy, several are horror, others are none of the above. We get not one, but two lesbian Sherlocks, a Watson who's a Chinese magician, and settings all over space and time.

But do they work as stories?

For me, they mostly didn't rise above mediocre, and so I was surprised to read the author biographies at the back of the book and read their extensive publishing history and their many award nominations and wins. (I'd only heard of a couple of them.)

Now, there are a few mitigating factors which may have contributed to my low evaluation. One is that I was reading an unedited Netgalley copy, which I was given for purposes of review. There are a lot of editing issues (I marked more than 70, including some very basic ones), some of which I expect will go away in the final version, though I have my doubts about others. The editor seems to have standardised on "alright", which I consider incorrect still, and there are also multiple instances of "disinterested" used to mean "uninterested" - that's a fight I consider lost, though, and I didn't even count them in the 70.

Not only were there a lot of errors from the authors, but whatever file was sent to Netgalley was in a format that, for Kindle reading, introduced more issues, missing spaces, extra or missing paragraph breaks, and a few instances of outright word salad. It also didn't provide a table of contents or navigable chapters, which makes it harder to read. Now, none of these issues will be in the final book, but they did wear away at my concentration, and when I'm distracted by such things I'm more likely to notice weaknesses in the stories themselves.

Then, too, I've been reading some great anthologies recently, collecting classic stories and the best of current writing, and these stories just didn't seem that great by comparison.

My expectations were lowered by the first story. OK, the characters don't have the traditional names (they're Haus and Wilson). OK, Wilson isn't a doctor, is black, American, and wounded in World War I, while Haus is a seedy carnival owner. Without the slightly forced introduction of the 221B address (it's on an old apartment door which is part of Haus's caravan) and the fact that it's in this collection, I probably wouldn't have spotted this as a Sherlock Holmes story at all.

All of which could still have worked, but this isn't a complete story. It's Act I of a three-act story. We get the characters and the situation introduced, but the mystery isn't solved. It's not an auspicious beginning. We also get someone "wrapping" instead of "rapping" on a table.

I won't go story by story, since I don't have the means to navigate between them easily, but I'll mention a few others. One of the stories has the 19th-century British style down perfectly, much better than several others in the collection which proceed as if using excessively long words and roundabout ways of saying things makes you sound like Watson (it doesn't). The problem is that this perfect 19th-century British style is used in a story set in America in the 1970s, something that is extremely significant to the plot, and that is repeatedly signaled by the author dropping cultural references into the text with, as it were, big flashing lights on them that form a sign: "WE ARE IN THE 1970s. THIS WILL BE IMPORTANT LATER". The author also manages to dangle a couple of participles.

There are stories set in South Africa and Australia that aren't bad, but didn't thrill me.

Apart from some editing issues, I found the story of an Arthur Doyle who goes to interview Watson, the surviving half of a comedy detective show, one of the stronger stories. The ending wasn't a big surprise, having been well telegraphed, but it was nonetheless sound.

Some use of words the author doesn't actually know the meaning of in order to sound "19th-century" mars the story of Holmes and Watson as simulations in a computer who are starting to cross over into other works of literature. It would be a great premise if it hadn't been done so often.

Then there's the dreary, sordid story of a gay Holmes and Watson caught up in Andy Warhol's factory, too drugged and alienated to be able to prevent the assassination of Bobby Kennedy.

The story in which Watson is a campus doctor at a Californian girls' college afflicted by a serial killer and a reality TV show was one of the more successful for me, linear though the plot was.

My confidence in the editor's ability to fix the numerous editing issues I'd been finding took a big hit when, in one of the story introductions, I read "unprepossessing" as a description of the author, when I'm fairly sure, from context, that the intended word was "unassuming". Calling someone unprepossessing isn't a compliment. It means they're ugly.

That particular story was, for me, one of the weakest in the collection. It invokes "something like human cloning" to explain a Holmes who periodically emerges from a box full of his ashes, memory and skills intact, and then disappears again into the box like a genie. The McGuffin is a "stolen formula". It reads like a 1930s pulp story, and not one of the best ones.

We close with another stronger story, in which Charlotte and Jane, schoolgirls, solve mysteries, including the theft of some of Jane's Sherlock Holmes fanfiction. The fanfiction is well written (more so than all but a tiny proportion of real fanfiction), and also serves to remind us that fanfiction is what this whole book is.

Again, for me it seldom rose above mediocre, and was occasionally worse than that. Whether that was because of excessive distraction by issues that won't be in the final version, I can't be sure.

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Saturday 2 August 2014

Review: The Year's Best Science Fiction & Fantasy, 2014

The Year's Best Science Fiction & Fantasy, 2014
The Year's Best Science Fiction & Fantasy, 2014 by Rich Horton

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've been reading a lot of anthologies lately, including another of the several "Year's Best" collections (the Jonathan Strahan one). I was pleased to find that, unlike some of the others, this one matched my tastes fairly well for the most part.

I enjoy stories in which capable, likeable or sympathetic characters, confronted by challenges, confront them right back and bring the situation to some sort of meaningful conclusion. I was worried when I read the editor's introduction and saw him praising Lightspeed and Clarkesworld magazines, because they can often be the home of another kind of story, in which alienated, passive characters are battered by tragedy until the story stops at a thematically significant moment. However, most of these stories are the first kind, not the second.

The editor (or someone) has a lot of proofreading work to do. In the uncorrected proof I got from Netgalley (in exchange for an honest review) I marked 55 errors, mostly typos and transpositions, but also homonym errors and misspellings. Hopefully, though, they will all be caught, along with the ones I missed, and if you buy this collection you'll get a clean version. To be fair, it's a large collection with a high word count, so 55 errors is not out of the ordinary, proportionately.

Several of the stories I had read before, in other collections, which probably shouldn't be a surprise given how many I've read recently. Oddly, these were in general not my favourite stories either in those collections or in this one.

To the individual stories.

James Patrick Kelly, "Soulcatcher": Kelly's stories are always well-structured, as you'd expect from an experienced teacher of writing craft, and this is no exception. The protagonist has been assigned by her family to play a role which will entrap the alien who has taken her sister as a pet and wreak vengeance on him. Although it unwinds into tragedy, I didn't feel it was "tragedy for the sake of tragedy"; it had depth.

Angelica Gorodischer (tr Amalia Gladhart), "Trafalgar and Josefina": It's difficult to pull off a story in which two people, in conversation, are working through the telling of a story involving other people who aren't present. Gorodischer makes it work, by making the interchange and the relationship between the conversational partners so strong and also by presenting a good second-hand story. Unreliable narrator is unreliable.

Tom Purdom, "A Stranger from a Foreign Ship": a man who can swap his consciousness with people nearby gets caught up in a criminal gang's internal problems. It has all the hard-boiled hallmarks, including the violence and the fact that the woman he rescues is selfish and dangerous.

Theodora Goss, "Blanchefleur": my favourite story in the whole collection, this is a retelling of the fairy tale of the White Cat (with which I'm not familiar). It has a classical fairy-tale feel, Ivan the Idiot proving that he has more to him than people see by his progress through three apprenticeships, but at the same time the lessons he learns and the abilities he displays have a modern feel. His second apprenticeship involves looking after a family of young (talking) lizards, teaching him care for others and compassion, for example.

Yoon Ha Lee, "Effigy Nights": I've read this story twice, once, I think, in Beneath Ceaseless Skies when it was first published, and once in another collection. I skipped it the third time, because it's dark and tragic and depressing and hence not to my taste, though beautifully done.

Maria Dahvana Headley, "Such & Such Said to So & So": a surreal tale which seems like it's, to some degree, an allegory of alcohol abuse, in which drinks become characters. Even though it was so odd, I felt it was well done and it worked.

Robert Reed, "Grizzled Veterans of Many and Much": the premise of this one is fascinating. It becomes possible to "transcend", to undergo a process in which the brain's activity is greatly speeded up and one can be incredibly productive for subjective years in a virtual environment, though objectively you live for only a short time before the process kills you. This reduces the human population, starting with the rich, who at first are the only ones who can afford it. The protagonist, grandson of a wealthy man, experiences various implications of the new technology. I couldn't quite work out the significance of the ending, but I felt the story was solid.

Geoff Ryman, "Rosary and Goldenstar": another story I'd read elsewhere, and skipped here. The author assembles Shakespeare, Doctor Dee, and the originals of Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern, and then doesn't really do a lot with them.

Benhanun Sriduangkaew, "The Bees Her Heart, The Hive Her Belly": a strange story of post-cyberpunk and post-humanity, in which the protagonist becomes involved in a scheme to hide a planet from the rest of the universe, using a virus which removes all memory and all record of it. Odd, but I liked it.

K.J. Parker, "The Dragonslayer of Merebarton": this one could easily have tipped over into being too dark for me, with its world-weary, disillusioned protagonist and the losses he sustains, but somehow it didn't. I think it was his depth of humanity and the way in which he cared despite himself. An unsentimental view of heroism that nevertheless ends up heroic.

Lavie Tidhar, "The Oracle": in the same setting as "The Bookseller", which I've read collected elsewhere, this is another strange post-cyberpunk future, this time in what is currently Israel (the author's home country). The richness of the setting carries it, even though the actual plot is rudimentary.

E. Lily Yu, "Loss, With Chalk Diagrams": in this post-cyberpunk future, "rewirers" can remove your grief through neurological means. The protagonist's best friend refuses to have her grief and loss removed, and the protagonist has never felt the need, despite several ordinary losses - until the best friend commits suicide, and she must decide between honouring her friend's wish to be grieved and removing the enormous loss she feels. Emotionally powerful, and raises important questions about the role of grief and pain.

C.S.E. Cooney, "Martyr's Gem": the island setting (after a cataclysm in which most of the islands have been lost) recalls Ursula Le Guin, as does the protagonist, a man little thought of by his people but who has a rare depth of caring and a pragmatic courage that wins him the respect of those who look more carefully. I enjoyed the story very much, though I wish that the author hadn't chosen such similar names for the protagonist and his sister (I was confused at least once).

Alaya Dawn Johnson, "They Shall Salt the Earth with Seeds of Glass": the agenda of this story should be fairly obvious when I say that it involves a future America struggling under the rule of technologically advanced invaders who use drones and enforce their (to the population, sometimes arbitrary) rules with lethal force. It's pretty clearly intended to make Americans think of what it must be like to be in, say, Afghanistan with Americans doing exactly that. I think that point may be lost for the people who need it most, though, because they'll be distracted by the fact that the protagonist's goal is to procure an illegal abortion for her sister.

Jedediah Berry, "A Window or a Small Box": another surreal one, with a young couple in an Alice-like struggle to escape from, or even in, a strange alternate reality. There are hints of it being partly about the experience of illegal immigrants.

Carrie Vaughn, "Game of Chance": I'm a fan of Carrie Vaughn's Kitty Norville series, and hadn't realised that she is also writing a lot of short fiction these days. The Kitty books are urban fantasy of medium depth, but this story goes beyond that. The female protagonist is able to influence probability, but only in small, unobtrusive ways, and struggles with a man with similar powers who believes that they must use their power to bring about large-scale political ends through action that's as direct as they're capable of. Her preference is to make what difference she can to people who don't seem powerful, and she's ultimately vindicated.

Erik Amundsen, "Live Arcade": this story about a video game that interacts with real life is beautifully told and well imagined. I did have a moment of disorientation when I realised that, despite the title, the young protagonist isn't playing in an arcade but on his home system, but that's probably just because I'm middle-aged.

Madeline Ashby, "Social Services": another that I've read in another collection, and which I didn't think worked all that well (largely because it broke my suspension of disbelief) as well as not being to my taste (it's essentially a horror story in the Twilight Zone mould).

Alex Dally MacFarlane, "Found": I found this a lovely, hopeful story about someone who is unusual in their culture discovering that what they are is honoured and accepted elsewhere. I was waiting for the other shoe to drop and for the story to turn dark and tragic, but happily it didn't. The sensory element of the spices is also well done.

Ken Liu, "A Brief History of the Trans-Pacific Tunnel": Liu does beautiful, human stories involving cultural expectations, their human cost, and their revision, and also quite a bit of infodumping. This is no exception.

E. Lily Yu, "Ilse, Who Saw Clearly": I just realised that this is the second story in the collection from the same author. It's a fairy tale, of sorts, and a coming of age story, and a story about being different and being brave and helping your community and finding a larger world. I liked it.

Harry Turtledove, "It's the End of the World as We Know It, and We Feel Fine": this one deals with an idea I've thought about myself, the idea of changing human nature so that we're able to have more positive social relationships. Even though it's done in a travelogue kind of style which could be very infodumpy, and has almost no plot, the engaging voice in which it's told makes up for that.

Krista Hoeppner Leahy, "Killing Curses: A Caught-Heart Quest": this is definitely an author I will be watching out for, based on this story. It reminded me of Roger Zelazny's stranger worlds, and if you saw my bookshelf full of battered second-hand Zelazny for which I've scoured used bookshops over a period of years, you'd know what a compliment that is coming from me. Although it's full of offhand strangeness, I was seldom lost or confused, though I never did quite manage to picture how the curse-killer's metal teeth looked when being used against curses.

Peter Watts, "Firebrand": the gummint covers up spontaneous human combustion resulting from big business's screw-ups. A cynical story, but I managed not to hate it.

Maureen McHugh, "The Memory Book": my least favourite story in the collection, full of editing errors, with a nasty, petty, spoiled protagonist who abuses her voodoo-like powers in an uptight Victorian England. It's interesting to see these unedited proofs from Netgalley and see which well-known, award-winning writers still confuse "it's" and "its"; turns out, Maureen McHugh, Ian MacDonald and Kaitlin R. Kiernan. And editors still buy them, and even put them in Best Of collections, which amazes me.

Howard Waldrop, "The Dead Sea-Bottom Scrolls": a piece of planetary romance, another without much plot but with an evocation of setting that makes up for it.

Karin Tidbeck, "A Fine Show on the Abyssal Plain": another surreal story (there are a few in this collection), about a troupe of actors who play to audiences they mostly can't see in strange settings. It managed to take me along for the ride.

Linda Nagata, "Out in the Dark": post-cyberpunk again, and this time it's the ethics of multiple incarnation for people who can download their personas into "husks" and use this to travel around the solar system in reasonable timeframes. I liked what the author did with it, and with her protagonist, the honest policeman.

Naim Kabir, "On the Origin of Song": a kind of parable of the advance of civil rights, I think, in which stone people strive to be recognised as people. The similarity of the hero's name to "Charles Darwin" looked like it was going to be more significant than it was.

Tang Fei (tr. Ken Liu), "Call Girl": beautifully written, though somehow to me it seemed a little thin. Perhaps it was the unemotionality of the protagonist.

Christopher Barzak, "Paranormal Romance": I read this in Paula Guran's collection Magic City: Recent Spells, and didn't like it much. The main character shows no protagonism, and there's really not a plot to speak of, certainly no conclusion. There were far better stories in that volume, for my money.

Yukimi Ogawa, "Town's End": a lovely urban fantasy with a Japanese setting.

Ian R. MacLeod, "The Discovered Country": like the Robert Reed story, this one starts with the idea that the ultra-rich can, by a destructive process, transition into a virtual existence, but it's more cynical; they're doing so in a way that hastens the decline of the world in general, that hogs resources desperately needed by ordinary people, in order to indulge their shallow whims. It's a scenario that arises from the current zeitgeist as naturally as stories of alien invasion rose from the 1950s, and will probably date as badly. Well done, though.

Alan DeNiro, "The Wildfires of Antarctica": another story of the ultra-rich being selfish in a failing world. "Art" pieces which are, to some extent at least, living stage a kind of robot uprising. Again, cynical, too much so for my taste, and didn't quite hold together for me.

Eleanor Arnason, "Kormak the Lucky": another story which I'd read previously elsewhere, and the only one of those in this collection that I actually enjoyed (though I didn't read it again, in the interests of time; this is a long book). Has the feel of a genuine ancient story (it draws on the Icelandic sagas), but also some modern touches.

Overall, then, an enjoyable collection, full of engagingly strange settings and memorable characters. If you mainly read short stories for the plots, probably not one for you, though at least most of the stories do have plots which conclude - not inevitable these days.

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