Sunday 30 August 2015

Review: Sorcerers!

Sorcerers! Sorcerers! by Jack Dann
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a scan of an anthology from 1986, and not all of the character recognition errors have been caught (so we get "1" for "I" a couple of times, "modem" for "modern" and the like). One or two of them should have been caught by spellcheck.

Setting that aside, like most anthologies, this is a mixed bag, but mainly successful.

"The Bleak Shore", a Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser story from Fritz Lieber, opens the collection well, with an atmospheric and suspenseful tale of a struggle against what, at first, seems to be Death himself.

"O Ugly Bird!" by Manly Wade Wellman makes the most of its Appalachian setting, and translates the "powerful man dominates small community" reality into a magical mode.

"The Power of the Press" by Richard Kearns is a lovely piece of fantastica, using the old trope of the wizards' duel in a fresh way.

"The Finger" by Naomi Mitchison takes us to Africa, where sorcery is still practiced and children are still sacrificed to create "magical" ingredients. It has a happier ending than many real-life cases.

"The Word of Unbinding" by Ursula K. Le Guin has all of the lyricism and gravitas that I associate with that author, and a brave wizard at the centre of it.

"His Coat So Gay" by Sterling E. Lanier is another "small community dominated by the powerful" story, though this time it's a powerful family. Although it's set in the US, it has the feel of urban fantasy set in England by the likes of Charles de Lint, partly because of the desperate struggle by the outsider to bring down ancient evil.

"Narrow Valley" by R. A. Lafferty I'd read before, like the Lieber and the Le Guin, but I enjoyed reading it again. Lafferty's mad style and odd characters are amusing, if lacking in much depth.

"Sleep Well of Nights" by Avram Davidson I disliked. The main character is an antihero, and the female characters are more furniture than people, and exist only in relation to the men.

"Armaja Das" by Joe Haldeman is a dark story of a Romany curse that brings down the whole of civilization.

"My Boat" by Joanna Russ is theoretically Cthulhu Mythos, but it lacks the overwrought prose that I associate with that subgenre. It's a rather lovely story of outsiders and the boy who didn't quite dare to join them and still regrets it years later.

The Hag Séleen by Theodore Sturgeon I wasn't expecting to enjoy--I'm not generally a Sturgeon fan--but I did. The courage of a father and the cleverness of his daughter defeat a witch. It could be seen as racially problematic, these days, though.

"The Last Wizard" by Avram Davidson is a short gag story that works well for what it is.

We close with "The Overworld" by Jack Vance. I dislike Vance's overelaborate style, and find it distances me from caring about the stiff, formal characters, who generally aren't particularly admirable either. Unfortunately, this story is no exception to any of that.

In general, a good collection, and not all of the best stories were ones I'd read before.

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Wednesday 19 August 2015

Review: Ancillary Sword

Ancillary Sword Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It's hard to write a good Book 2, especially of a trilogy, and very especially when your first one has won basically all the awards. Ann Leckie, for my money, pulls it off.

I did consider dropping this one to four stars. It's a touch unfocussed, and most of the best stuff (the setting, the multiple POVs from one first-person narrator, the gender thing) isn't new any more, because it was in the first book. That's another problem when you have to follow an amazing, innovative Book 1: Book 2 either has to be just as innovative in a new way (and risk losing people who loved the first book), or keep on in the same vein (and risk not having the same impact the second time around). I went for five stars, though, for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, like Book 1, it's almost completely error-free. I noticed two missing quotation marks, and one place that I personally would have put in another comma. That level of quality is vanishingly rare, even in trad-pub, because most authors--no matter how good they are at story-telling--make more errors than their editors catch. Leckie appears to be one of those rare authors who just don't get it wrong in the first place. The writing is smooth, confident, and at a high level of competence, meaning I can relax into it and focus on the story without being distracted by language glitches.

Secondly, there's some depth to the story, which is one of my criteria for awarding five stars (along with being excellently done). The author has clearly thought a lot about power dynamics, protest, access to authority for remedies, the human ability to fool ourselves, human nature in general... it's a mature, sophisticated book with some important ideas in it. Breq is a wonderful character, and while she has a pragmatic reason for bringing what justice she can (so that disaffected populations can't be used to cause disruption), she clearly has a degree of moral idealism as well. She's also taking zero deliveries of any crap from anyone, something I enjoy and applaud in a main character.

The main improvement I thought could have been made is that the story question could be clearer. Is Breq:

1. Attempting to stabilise the system in order to prevent it becoming the site of conflict in the potential civil war?
2. Attempting to atone for her earlier actions by bringing justice to the oppressed?
3. Trying to help her former lieutenant's sister, again in order to atone?
4. Trying to regain the sense of multiple-self that she had when she was a ship?
5. Trying to help her "baby lieutenant" through a crisis into which she has unique insight?

All of these are things she works on, and succeeds at to one degree or another, but it's not as clear as it could be which ones are most important to her or what she's striving to achieve, and this takes a certain amount of tension out of the story which would have been relatively easy to put in.

Aside from that, this was excellent, and I look forward eagerly to Book 3.

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Friday 14 August 2015

Review: Orconomics: A Satire

Orconomics: A Satire Orconomics: A Satire by J. Zachary Pike
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was unusual in several ways.

Firstly, it was based pretty obviously not just on the sword-and-sorcery genre, but on Dungeons and Dragons--even down to the party arguing about shopping and adding up points and levels. That's not unusual. What's unusual is how well it's done, in general; that it's not only witty, but also deeply serious and in places outright tragic; and that it's a satire on our world's financial institutions and their corruption, as well as a tale of sword-and-sorcery adventure.

It's generally well edited, though there are slips; occasional misplaced apostrophes, a dangling modifier, and "the sleight that the wizard had inferred" when the author means "the slight that the wizard had implied". I suspect an author that made a lot of mistakes and an editor that didn't quite catch all of them (because editors, too, are human).

Still, the story is strong, the characters manage to rise above being cliches, the satire hits pretty hard on its target, and I'm seriously considering getting the sequel.

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Monday 10 August 2015

Review: Penric's Demon

Penric's Demon Penric's Demon by Lois McMaster Bujold
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I always enjoy Bujold, who writes smoothly and fluently and gives us wonderful characters. I enjoy some of her books more than others, and this was one of the others, but even Bujold not at her best is still good.

My main issues were pacing and length. There were a lot of skimmable passages of description, and, as this is a novella, it is a bit linear, and only has so much complexity. It would make a great first third of a novel; as a novella, it leaves me underfed.

Two of my favourite Bujolds, The Curse of Chalion and the wonderful Paladin of Souls, are in this setting. One of my least favourite, The Hallowed Hunt, is in another part of it. For me, Penric's Demon falls somewhere in the middle, but towards the good end. I would love to see it expanded into a full novel, though.

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Review: The Alloy of Law

The Alloy of Law The Alloy of Law by Brandon Sanderson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was delightful. I've read and enjoyed the first two Mistborn books, which are more or less supers against the background of a wonderfully twisted reimagining of the old Dark Lord/Chosen One epic fantasy schtick. This picks up centuries later, when the events of those books are legends, and gives us supers in a 19th-century-technology-level secondary fantasy world. (I wouldn't quite call it steampunk, despite trains and goggles, but it's close.)

Not only that, but we have literal tinfoil hats which actually protect people from having their thoughts manipulated (and that's just a throwaway mention in passing). We have a very nearly literal deus ex machina, which is a piece of bare-faced chutzpah that I have to applaud. We have an intelligent, capable young woman, sadly missing from the cover despite her major character status. We have banter. We have heists. We have a rogue on the side of good, despite his continuing kleptomaniac tendencies. We have tropes subverted. We have non-tedious reflections on the nature of law and authority, and on whether it's right to serve the law when the law primarily serves the wealthy.

And we have plenty of action. Varied, exciting, and clever. Cinematic and suspension-of-disbelief-challenging, sometimes, but I forgive it when it's this good.

I listened to the audio version, and the voice actor does a fine job--particularly difficult, in this case, since one of the characters is himself a bit of a voice actor, and changes his accent to pass himself off as other people.

Highly entertaining, but not without its philosophical side. I enjoyed it hugely, and looked forward to my commute so I could listen to more of it.

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Review: Many Genres, One Craft: Lessons in Writing Popular Fiction

Many Genres, One Craft: Lessons in Writing Popular Fiction Many Genres, One Craft: Lessons in Writing Popular Fiction by Michael A. Arnzen
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There's a certain kind of blog that, for SEO purposes, hosts frequent guest posts around whatever its theme is. Those guest posts are often poorly-executed statements of the blindingly obvious, there only to fill up space and increase keyword density.

Unfortunately, I felt that some of the contributions to this book fell into the same trap. There are sixty chapters in all, none of them very long, which means that they're also not in much depth. If there were one or two good points in each chapter, that would be OK, though not really what I was looking for--I want something that goes into depth on intermediate to advanced topics in writing craft, not another restatement of the basics. However, a few of the contributions don't even have much to say that would be helpful to a beginner, and some of them also make headdesk-worthy simple writing errors (mostly homonyms). These are graduates of the Seton Hill MFA in Popular Fiction, which doesn't fill me with confidence in the value of the course. (Of course, it isn't setting out to teach "how to write valuable, insightful nonfiction". The graduates may write perfectly fine popular fiction, and homonym errors are hardly rare even among award-winning authors. Still, such skills do matter.)

Did not finish.

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Thursday 6 August 2015

Review: Surfacing

Surfacing Surfacing by Walter Jon Williams
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Walter Jon Williams is the only writer who regularly gives me the feeling that I'm not actually all that bright. I say this because I've more than once read something of his and known I was missing something, known it would make sense if only I thought at his level.

This novella was one of those. Not until the end, though (I didn't understand how the thing that seemed to be the resolution actually solved the problem the characters faced), and the ride was a good one, even if the characters were, let's say, less emotionally healthy than those I usually prefer to spend my time with.

It's rare to find a really good depiction of alienness in SF, but this novella provides several, at different levels: the whales the main characters have learned to talk to reasonably well, the Deep Dwellers in the ocean of another planet, whose language is less comprehensible to the human mind, and the n-dimensional being who periodically (by arrangement) possesses humans for the sake of the experience. Not to mention the protagonist's insane father, of course, who had his own kind of alienness.

Beautifully written and excellently done, even if I didn't completely understand it.

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Wednesday 5 August 2015

Review: Ithaka Rising

Ithaka Rising Ithaka Rising by L.J. Cohen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Disclosures: I received a copy via Netgalley for independent review. I know the author on social media, and she has beta-read for me in the past.

I very much enjoyed the first Halcyone Space novel, Derelict, and looked forward to this one with slight trepidation that it might not measure up. Although I didn't love it quite as much as the first, it's still a fine second book in the series, and a hopeful sign of good things to come.

I mentioned that I enjoyed it slightly less than the previous one, and the main reason is that I felt the plot of the first progressed reliably and logically from point to point, while this book's plot relied on a helpful coincidence (and on a character jumping to a correct conclusion on, I felt, too little evidence.)

(view spoiler)

Apart from that, the plot was sound, the character relationships and their development were well handled and satisfying, and the prose shows clear improvement over previous books (which were already above average). The challenges the characters face are political and interpersonal, without the action-based challenges of the first book, but they're none the worse for that. And I did appreciate the realistic depiction of long-term consequences from physical injury. (Since the author used to work as a physical therapist, and is married to a doctor, this is a great example of "write what you know".)

I was surprised to see, when I went to post my review, that the book is 400 pages long. It didn't feel long, which is an excellent sign.

I look forward to future entries in this space opera with a brain and a heart.

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