Tuesday 24 March 2015

Review: The Flying Inn

The Flying Inn
The Flying Inn by G.K. Chesterton

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The main problem with this book is that the author is very clever, and likes to show it. He also has strong political, religious and philosophical views which are not necessarily widely shared, and he wants to propagate them. This leads to a certain amount of straw-manning. Characters can't be just characters, they have to be types, standing for everyone who shares a particular characteristic with them.

It took me a long time to finish listening to the book (I got it from Librivox), because I just wasn't all that engaged with the premise of "sinister Muslim influence on British politics leads to Prohibition; rag-tag, eccentric Irishman mounts an initially small-scale insurgency against the changes; the political is personal." As a British Catholic, Chesterton is heir to a long tradition of being "agin the gummint," and his anarchist tendencies are on full display here.

There's a great deal of singing of original songs, which, fortunately, are mostly decent poetry. There's a lot of milling around without a clear goal, too.

While I enjoyed other Chesterton works like [b:The Napoleon of Notting Hill|49673|The Napoleon of Notting Hill|G.K. Chesterton|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1348317327s/49673.jpg|990611] and [b:The Man Who Was Thursday|184419|The Man Who Was Thursday|G.K. Chesterton|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1403181403s/184419.jpg|195447], I always felt that there was something slightly off about them for my taste. In the case of this book, that "off" feeling dominated.

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Sunday 22 March 2015

Review: Warrior Mage

Warrior Mage
Warrior Mage by Lindsay Buroker

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I usually praise Lindsay Buroker for producing consistently entertaining adventure fiction, and this is certainly that. However, if her books have a fault, it's that, occasionally, the plots rely on unlikely but convenient coincidences. There's usually only one per book, which meets the Pixar Test of getting the characters into trouble, rather than out of it. This book, though, has a good half-dozen, mostly more helpful than not, and the protagonist teeters on the edge of being what I call a Spoiled Protagonist: someone that randomly encountered people will help for no really good reason, in order to move him in the direction of his Destiny.

He shouldn't need the help, either. The opening chapter establishes him as someone who's capable of qualifying to enter an elite college for warrior mages, physically and mentally formidable, if a little callow.

There's a lampshade hung on the unlikely coincidences at one point, and the protagonist credits his people's gods. Given that, in the numerous books set in this world so far, we've had no indication that the gods are real and active, I didn't find this an adequate explanation.

The competent, enjoyable adventure scenes and the out-of-their-depth, bickering characters are still there, but for me, they were overshadowed by the author's excessive generosity to the protagonist to get him out of trouble.

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Saturday 21 March 2015

Review: Necromancer

Necromancer by Graeme Ing

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've said for a long time that I don't like "dark" fantasy, but I'm in the middle of re-reading the Abhorsen series, so that doesn't really hold up. Accordingly, when I saw this on the Fussy Librarian, I thought I'd give it a go.

As a result, I figured out that what I don't like isn't so much dark as grimdark. It's not necessarily the death and destruction (though I don't go looking for it), but the nihilism and the lack of heroes. In this book, heroes are not lacking, and accordingly I enjoyed it.

I thought at first that it was going to make my "well-edited" shelf, but did notice a number of issues as I read further. The nature of the issues suggests to me that the manuscript had a great many more, and that a very good copy editor had caught most but, inevitably, not all of them. (For example, "millenia" as the singular, "Magi" as the singular, "bracken water" for "brackish water" twice, "poo-pooing" instead of "pooh-poohing", and one "your" for "you're".) For the most part, though, it now reads smoothly and well.

As I mentioned, there's an unequivocal hero, the protagonist, narrator and title character. He uses his necromantic powers for good, in the service and defence of the city he loves. It's a sword-and-sorcery world, but the story, I realised partway through, is detective noir. The hero gets beaten up and knocked out a lot, is susceptible to getting caught up with untrustworthy dames, and can't hold back from sassing powerful men who don't respond well to being sassed.

Speaking of the setting, I do question the decision to have a lot of unfamiliar animals, plants, foods, drinks and so forth with made-up names, rather than using Earth names. I know it's more "realistic" worldbuilding, but it doesn't convey a clear impression to the reader of what these incidental things are like when they're called by an unfamiliar name. One of the drinks is also called something very similar to one of the characters (the hero's apprentice), and that was also confusing each time it was mentioned.

It does feel like a rich and well-thought-through world, though, and I'd definitely read another book set there, or other books by the author in general. The plot made sense and moved at a good pace, the characters were likeable and relatable, the mystery was well handled, and apart from the issues already mentioned the writing and worldbuilding worked well.

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Saturday 14 March 2015

Review: The Feminine Future: Early Science Fiction by Women Writers

The Feminine Future: Early Science Fiction by Women Writers
The Feminine Future: Early Science Fiction by Women Writers by Mike Ashley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As someone who's interested both in early SF and women writers, I leapt at the opportunity to review this (via Netgalley). It didn't disappoint, although for some reason I had misunderstood and was expecting specifically feminist fiction. It's "feminine", not "feminist". There are a couple of proto-feminist stories, but most of the stories, written between 1873 and 1930, read very much like stories by men of the time.

The viewpoint (whether first or third person) is almost always a man's, notably, with a couple of exceptions. Did genre stories from a female POV not sell, or did the women of the time just not think of writing them?

The quality of the stories is generally high, though there is one - the fantasy of a frustrated suffragist in which all the women of the USA migrate to the west and set up their own republic there - which is almost entirely in "tell" mode, and more interesting because of its content than its form. The editing is good, with only five mostly minor errors that I noticed - not always the case with these collections of older works, which are often scanned from spotty pages and end up full of typos.

Overall, I notice a greater focus on relationships in many of the stories than is the case with stories by men of the time, something that's also apparent in the great C.L. Moore. I don't think I'm just reading that in. A lot of the SF stories by men of the 1870s to 1930s read as if written by adolescents, as far as the emotional background and connection of the characters is concerned. Many (not all) of these stories do considerably better - though not all of them were published in the pulp ghetto where SF was increasingly herded, a number of them appearing in more "literary" magazines.

Story by story, here's how it went down.

"When Time Turned" by Ethel Watts Mumford, 1901: Benjamin Button 20 years earlier, with an elderly man who is experiencing his life backwards. Not just a novelty "wouldn't it be rum if" story, but a moving account of the man's loves and losses, joys and sorrows. Told from the viewpoint of a (male) observer.

"The Painter of Dead Women" by Edna W. Underwood, 1910: Unusual among the stories in this volume, particularly the early ones, in that it's told from a woman's point of view (in first person), and the woman is very much a protagonist - as much as it looks as if she's going to be a victim.

"The Automaton Ear" by Florence McLandburgh, 1873: The oldest story in the book, and (like the first two) with a strong thread of insanity running through it. A scientist is obsessed with the idea of recapturing the sounds of the past. Male narrator, first person.

"Ely's Automatic Housemaid" by Elizabeth W. Bellamy, 1899: A technology-gone-wrong funny story, a genre still very much alive today. The frustrations of a middle-class household in getting competent servants seems to be solved when the (male) first-person narrator's friend offers them a pair of automatons. His wife and daughter don't do much, compared to him and his son.

"The Ray of Displacement" by Harriett Prescott Spofford, 1903: Male first-person narrator, a scientist, develops a ray which can make him able to pass through solid objects and, at a different setting, to become invisible. Many writers of the time (or of 30 years later) would have just infodumped about how cool this was, but Spofford manages a gripping story full of drama, injustice, revenge and a glorious and disturbing twist.

"Those Fatal Filaments" by Mabel Ernestine Abbott, 1903: Male first-person narrator, an engineer, develops a thought-reading device, and instead of infodumping about how cool it is, Abbott manages a gripping story of emotional and relational near-tragedy.

"The Third Drug" by Edith Nesbit (as E. Bland), 1908: [a:E. Nesbit|7935185|E. Nesbit|https://d.gr-assets.com/authors/1395657856p2/7935185.jpg] is the only author in the volume that I'd heard of (she wrote some classic children's stories which are still enjoyed today). This one has a male protagonist, is told in tight third-person, and is an action-packed adventure in early-20th-century Paris involving a mad scientist.

"A Divided Republic" by Lillie Devereux Blake, 1887: Subtitled "An Allegory of the Future," but not actually an allegory, this is the story I mentioned before, mostly in "tell" rather than "show" mode and without depth to the characters, but told to convey ideas rather than to entertain. The women of America all pack up and move west when the men refuse to grant them the vote (something which, in fact, took another 30 years). "It must not be supposed that their departure took place without protest on the part of the men. Some of them were greatly dismayed when they heard that wife and daughters were going away, and attempted remonstrance," she remarks with delightful gravity. There are several burns directed at various named men of the time who, apparently, were known as opponents of female suffrage of one kind or another.

"Via the Hewitt Ray" by M.F. Rupert, 1930: The second story in the book to have a female point-of-view character (and first-person narrator), this one depicts a female-dominated society in the fourth dimension. It's no utopia - the women are depicted as cold-hearted and cruel to the men and to their enemies. Yet the protagonist, a liberated young woman pilot of the relatively near future (when the story was written), who has gone to the fourth dimension to rescue her scientist father, joins gleefully in a genocidal attack on another race, justifying her participation by observing that the enemies were not much like her so it didn't bother her. The 1930s, eh?

"The Great Beast of Kafue" by Clotilde Graves (as Richard Dehan), 1917: From the first-person POV of a young boy, this could easily have just been a Great White Hunter in Africa story, but it manages to be a tale of deep emotional loss and the wounds that inflicts.

"Friend Island" by Francis Stevens, 1918: A story by a woman (Gertrude Barrows Bennett), using a man's name, told from the POV of a male narrator who is, however, only there to mediate the story of a woman, a female mariner in a time when women are dominant and have most of the seagoing jobs. Like a lot of early fiction that imagines a female-dominated society - including "A Divided Republic," but definitely not including "Via the Hewitt Ray" - it assumes that if women took men's roles society would become gentler and more civilised. Even in the "shabby little tea shops frequented by able sailoresses of the poorer type," we see "spruce, smiling young maidens... despite their profession, very neat in gold-braided blue knickers and boleros," and the chronicler treats the raconteur to tea and macaroons, not alcohol.

"The Artificial Man" by Clare Winger Harris, 1929: One of a couple of stories in this volume which raise the question of outward appearance versus moral virtue. Harris was the first woman to sell a story to the world's first SF magazine, Amazing Stories, and this story is among the first to depict a cyborg (not by that name). The moral decline of a man who replaces parts of himself with machinery raises all kinds of questions and is dramatically told, with love and friendship among the casualties of his fall.

"Creatures of the Light" by Sophie Wenzel Ellis, 1930: This is the second story dealing with outward vs inward perfection, in which an outwardly perfected man's inner contempt for "lesser" beings, including his Igor-like creator, brings tragedy and destruction to an attempted utopia. The hero is also good-looking, though he affects to despise his own looks; yet he struggles only briefly with abandoning his brilliant but plain fiancee for someone much more outwardly attractive.

"The Flying Teuton" by Alice Brown, 1917: A story set after World War I, written and published during the war, in which a kind of divine punishment falls on Germany and the allied nations, in sympathy, make a fair and lasting peace. Again, the viewpoint character is male, as are all of the characters.

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Sunday 8 March 2015

Review: Practical Emotional Structure

Practical Emotional Structure
Practical Emotional Structure by Jodi Henley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the first of what I hope will be a series of reviews of "writing craft" books. I plan to read at least a dozen this year, with the aim of taking my craft up another notch and selling more fiction as a result.

I began with this one because I recognise emotional engagement as a weakness in my fiction, one I want to work on. Did it help? Yes, it did, though I felt that with a thorough edit it would have been much clearer and helped a lot more.

There's a danger that a book like this becomes simply "how to manipulate the reader," and once or twice it did stray in that direction: "To keep selling stories, a reader needs to identify you as the person who can hit all their buttons on a consistent basis," the author says (dangling her modifier). However, it isn't simply that. What the author is talking about is best summed up in this quotation from the final chapter:

"Emotional structure is actually a series of three things—the way your character feels about the story and plot (putting “emotion into your story”), pre-thinking (your emotional hooks and triggers) and a character’s emotional arc."

Emotional response that appears on the page helps the reader identify with the character and feel along with them. Emotional hooks and triggers are (if I've understood correctly) the relationships and emotional memories that the character has, which again help the reader imagine themselves into the character's life and experience, and care about what happens to them. And the character's emotional arc is the change in the character's (habitual) emotional state, or their emotional landscape, over the course of the story. For example, a character may go from being emotionally closed off and grieving to emotionally open and able to love again.

I marked a few other key quotations from the book as I went through, and here are some:

"If I can remove my heroine and replace her with an archetype, then I don't have emotion or the right people in my story." I thought this was an interesting idea that could have been expanded on. It seems to be talking about the importance of particularity in our characters. A story needs to be about this person in particular, who is uniquely fitted to being in this story because of what has happened to her in the past and how she's responded to it.

"A core event is the psychological reason your character reacts to story events in a consistent way." The author's concept of a "core event," something in the character's backstory that shapes her outlook on life in a way that is important to the story, is central to her approach. She makes the point that it can go in multiple directions, according to the character's personality and the needs of the story. The same thing happening to two different characters can produce two very different stories. But because it's such a significant emotional event, it consistently shapes the character's reactions (and actions). Only when the character's perspective on the core event changes, as the result of a new, equally significant event, can the character's emotional landscape change permanently.

"Justified anger is not conflict. It’s just anger." But unreasonable anger, driven by misinterpretation, or by confusing what just happened with something that happened a long time ago? That's conflict fuel.

"What makes her do what she does and what will tear her apart if she doesn't?" This is another perspective on the core event.

"While you can definitely create a story without conflict, the depth of the emotional arc is shallow which means there’s no reason to have all these story events because it shows the same thing over and over and the outcome is never in any doubt." That sentence needs commas (I'll talk about punctuation further below), but the idea is that a story without conflict is a mere recitation of events. Without conflict, nothing will change, and so one event can stand in for all.

"Plot grows out of how your character reacts to or takes control of what’s already going on in your story." There are various definitions of "plot," but this one (plot is the outward events which are needed to advance the emotional story, essentially) is a useful one. As the author, it's up to you to construct a plot which fits the emotional direction of the story. "Changing an emotional reaction to the core event changes what the story is about on a very fundamental level (the theme)."

"Some people are full of angst and some aren't. Using the right focal point creates the right amount of emotional depth for the story you’re trying to tell." This was something of a relief to me. I'm not a highly emotional person myself, even by the standards of my low-emotional-expression culture, and I'm not up for the common practice of standing off and flinging tragedies at your characters until the audience cries. It may win Hugos, but it doesn't win me over. However, giving my characters some emotional stakes, some emotional driver which shapes their responses to the world, is going to help me engage my readers more, and I can adjust the sliders appropriately. Not everyone needs a deeply tragic backstory in which everyone in their village, including their parents, was horribly killed (epic fantasy authors, take note), but everyone has had something significant happen to them, something that influences how their subsequent story plays out, and by connecting to that we establish an emotional truth for our characters which our readers will recognise and identify.

"Write what you love, but realize…you love a lot of other things, too." This addresses the balance between being true to yourself and gaining an audience. If you begin with human universals, things you care about that other people care about too, your audience will be bigger than if you ride your hobby-horse until it's dead and then beat it.

All of this is good stuff. Now, to the not-so-good.

First and most obviously, the author needs remedial punctuation classes. Not just for her horrible habit of using scare quotes for emphasis instead of italics (it put me in mind of a manager I knew who would do the same with air quotes), but because she clearly has no idea when to use a comma, semicolon or em dash, and just uses them more or less at random. Along with sentences that change grammatical direction partway through, or are missing key words, and her habit of mixing together several examples and flipping between them without signalling clearly, the inept punctuation makes the book less clear and less useful than it would otherwise be. Both at the level of macro-structure (the progression from chapter to chapter to make a clear argument) and at the level of micro-structure (sentences and phrases that convey that argument clearly and unambiguously), the book has a lot of room for improvement.

It's useful enough that I give it four stars anyway, but be aware that the rating is more for the content than it is for the form.

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Saturday 7 March 2015

Review: Clariel

Clariel by Garth Nix

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've long been a fan of the Abhorsen series, and when I discovered that this latest one was available in e-audio from my library I jumped on it. I'm very glad I did, so much so that I'm now listening to Sabriel from the same source (and will probably listen to the other two after that).

The narration is smooth and professional, and I found myself holding my breath when Clariel was having difficulty breathing, and saying "Clariel, no, no, no" out loud in the car when it looked like she was going to do something particularly tragic.

It is a tragedy, which I didn't realise upfront, but by the time I figured it out I was nearly at the end. I don't usually choose tragic fiction, but this is so well done I have no regrets.

Because I listened to an audio version, I can't comment on the editing, except to say that I noticed a few dangling participles early on. Otherwise, I was caught up in the story and enjoyed it thoroughly.

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Friday 6 March 2015

Review: Halloween Magic and Mayhem

Halloween Magic and Mayhem
Halloween Magic and Mayhem by Stella Wilkinson

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I got this novella as part of the Riot Girls box set. The premise of that set was "Teen girls who don't need a hero", and while that's technically true of this story, it's only true because the main character is rescued by a woman (her aunt) rather than a man. She's not really a protagonist, and doesn't solve her own problems.

I took half a star off for poor copy editing (including "its" for "it's") and generally mediocre writing. I took another half star off for lack of protagonism, and I took a whole star off for the fact that the story doesn't have a middle.

Beginning: main character is introduced, gets into trouble.
End: her aunt turns up and saves her, everything is fixed, she ends up getting everything she wanted.

Normally, there would be a middle, in which the situation develops, the main character tries and fails to solve it, she has a realisation or change of perspective that forms the pivot of the plot, she tries and fails some more, and finally she earns an insight that enables her to reach the solution. That middle is missing, or is so brief I missed it, which is part of why this story is so short.

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Review: XGeneration 1: You Don't Know Me

XGeneration 1: You Don't Know Me
XGeneration 1: You Don't Know Me by Brad Magnarella

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I got this book as part of the Riot Girls box set.

I love superhero prose, but I didn't love this. Though it was well-edited and read smoothly, I found it very slow-moving, with a lot of detail about the characters' everyday lives, and just a gradually-building sense of Things Amiss that didn't build fast enough to keep my interest.

What really put me off it, though, and caused me to put it down after reading about a quarter of it, was the constant 80s references. I expect some cultural references in a book set in the 1980s, sure, but it isn't necessary to drop a brand name, celebrity name, or other pop culture item on every page. The brand names were the most frequent and pervasive. Nobody could just look at their shoes or smooth their shirt or put laundry in the washing machine, there had to be a brand mentioned. At first it was mildly annoying, but eventually (combined with a not-yet-exciting story) it drove me out of the book.

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Tuesday 3 March 2015

Review: Erasmus Hobart and the Golden Arrow

Erasmus Hobart and the Golden Arrow
Erasmus Hobart and the Golden Arrow by Andrew Fish

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book comes out of Harper-Collins' Authonomy project, a means of crowdsourcing manuscripts in which users vote for their favourites and the winners get published. It's a kind of American Idol of books. It appears, in both cases, that the wisdom of crowds produces fairly bland, commercial light entertainment, though in this case it's lacking a bit of polish.

The Golden Arrow is entertaining. I found it amusing, though not to the point of actually laughing (I'm a tough audience). The hapless protagonist, the hostile squirrels, the classic comedy duo of the men in the pub, all worked for me. Unfortunately, the light comedic tone did also undermine any tension the author set out to create with the protagonist's separation from his time machine in medieval England. I was never in any doubt that everything would come out fine.

Time travel stories are hard to do well. For one thing, the past is a lot more foreign than most modern people realise, and often time travel stories (particularly comedic ones) deal with this by ignoring it. In this case, the people who should have been talking late Anglo-Saxon/early Middle English or Anglo-Norman French just speak modern English with a limited vocabulary, and there are no major issues with the protagonist understanding them or vice versa. I wouldn't place a lot of reliance on anything else about the history, either, but I don't think we're meant to (after all, it is about the Robin Hood legend).

The Grandfather Paradox (in the guise of a many-greats-grandmother paradox) is invoked in order to justify why Erasmus, the protagonist, doesn't sleep with medieval Maude, who has a crush on him for no actually justified reason apart from that he's the protagonist. However, it's presented in the form of "You might be influenced by your memory of me not to form a relationship with someone else, and the two of you might have otherwise been my ancestors." Erasmus doesn't seem to think about the fact that she could become pregnant and he could thus become his own ancestor, or, for that matter, that encouraging her, and others, into danger for his own ends could result in the death of someone who was destined to be his ancestor. When he does muck up the timeline, it's not through any of these major meddlings but just by being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

There's a "Great Man" theory of history at work, a very old-fashioned take, which goes so far as to suppose that events as remote as the English Civil War and the suffrage movement wouldn't have happened at all had Robin Hood's legend been different. Historically speaking, this is bunk, and since it seems to be presented seriously it doesn't get the comedy pass.

There's an attempt at physical comedy in prose which doesn't work, about trying to get a longbow through a low doorway. If you imagine the scene, it's clear that just holding the thing horizontally would remove the whole problem (or if it wouldn't, that wasn't effectively conveyed).

Kudos, though, for the quiet feminism which a) assumes, without discussion, that Marion's band of women would be just as effective as Robin's band of men, if not more so, and b) also assumes that patriarchy would successfully suppress this fact and reduce Marion to the love interest, while forgetting her followers entirely.

Harper-Collins retains its unenviable title of "Major Publisher Most Likely to Publish a Badly-Edited Book" with this one; I marked almost 30 errors of grammar, usage or word choice, some of the more significant being "more knowledgeable than his years would usually belie", "seemed to comprise of" and a couple of number agreement errors along the lines of "all attempts at silence was discarded". Along with the only mildly amusing story balanced out by the poorly-thought-through premise, this results in only three stars from me.

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Sunday 1 March 2015

Review: Time and Tithe

Time and Tithe
Time and Tithe by L.J. Cohen

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a difficult review to write, since I know the author on social media and like her, but I didn't particularly like this book.

I enjoyed the previous book in the series, and felt that it was a fresh and interesting take on the fae. I've since seen similar things from a couple of other authors: the fae as one-percenters (or the post-Occupy public idea of one-percenters), superficial, concerned only with their own power and not at all with its cost to everyone else, selfish and self-involved, with no insight into the family values of Ordinary Decent Folks and how those values make Ordinary Decent Folks stronger and better than them. (By "family values", incidentally, I mean here the value accorded to the ties of family.)

Now, there's nothing wrong with that as a premise at all, and that isn't what I didn't enjoy. The problem I had is that, to me, this book lacked light and shade.

With the exception of a few brief moments of mild modern American sarcasm from the modern American characters, the whole of the book seemed stuck in a mood I want to describe as "portentious, and a bit angsty". Stakes are high, emotions are high, conflict levels are high, everyone is pitted against everyone else or forming apparently doomed alliances, one thing after another is going horribly wrong, and there's never a moment to breathe.

This might have worked if there hadn't also been such a prevailing mood of confusion and helplessness, in which nobody knew how to resolve the situation. Characters were thrashing round, reacting without a plan, or angsting about how they didn't know what to do (and therefore doing nothing), right up to the end. It was probably inevitable, therefore, that the final resolution seemed a bit contrived and unconvincing to me (especially since aspects of it bore strong similarities to the resolution of the first book).

I'm not suggesting that the book wasn't well done. It may also have set out to achieve exactly what I didn't enjoy. But I didn't enjoy it.

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