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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