Friday 23 October 2015

Review: Harry Takes Off

Harry Takes Off Harry Takes Off by Steve Turnbull
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I received a copy from the author, who I know on social media, for purposes of review.

Reading a book that positions itself as steampunk is the triumph of hope over experience for me. This is because, almost without exception, the execution fails to measure up to the ideas. Fails by a wide margin. The average steampunk book is poorly written, both in terms of story and in terms of basic competence with the elements of prose.

This book is that rare exception.

Firstly, Turnbull doesn't flood us with absurd gadgetry. His sole technological difference is a form of antigravity, which I think is a wise approach. We don't have steam this and brass that and clockwork the other thing, with none of them making any kind of technological or sociological sense. We have steam-powered heavier-than-air flight, and airships that can carry much greater payloads. Otherwise, it's a straight historical adventure.

Secondly, he knows how to write a pulp story. It's exciting, it occasionally stretches belief, but I forgive it because it reminds me of the thrilling adventure stories of my childhood. There aren't the problems with pacing, massive plot holes, and excessive description that so often plague the genre.

Thirdly, his characters aren't idiots. Because this is a fast-moving, action-packed, plot-driven pulp story, they don't achieve tremendous depth, perhaps, but they're sensible, pragmatic, capable, and don't get themselves into trouble by doing things that are obviously thickheaded. Nor do they need to be rescued by men, like so many steampunk heroines. Instead, they bravely escape from the Germans by themselves and take a warning to the British government, which is, of course, ignored because they are only teenage girls (and one is African). Then they bravely escape again (I did find the fact that the Sultan of Zanzibar lets the engineer sister fix, indeed improve, their aircraft while holding them captive suspiciously plot-convenient).

Fourth, he only uses vocabulary that he actually understands. This is one of the worst things about steampunk for me: the authors try to write "Victorian" and end up making a horrible hash of it, misusing words left and right and revealing their ignorance of history, language and culture. Turnbull dodges this bullet, or rather artillery shell.

I give this book my rare "well-edited" tag, which I don't think has ever been earned by a steampunk book before (several of them have got the "seriously-needs-editing" tag, though). In part, this is, of course, because Turnbull doesn't make a lot of mistakes to begin with. Quality begins with the author, and if the author makes hundreds of errors, there will be tens of errors even after a very good editor has gone over it.

A very good editor (whom I know) has gone over this, and there are very few issues left, all minor. The copy that I read came bundled with another book of Turnbull's, edited by a different person, which revealed that he has a habit of comma-splicing. There was no sign of this issue in Harry Takes Off.

Overall, a fine piece of adventure fiction, which didn't distract me from the plot by dropping constant clangers like so much steampunk does.

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Thursday 15 October 2015

Review: Under the Ice Blades

Under the Ice Blades Under the Ice Blades by Lindsay Buroker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Another reliably entertaining Lindsay Buroker book. She keeps writing them and I keep buying them.

One thing I do notice about this series in particular is that all of the couples seem to have the same dynamic: they're confident on the outside, and on the inside they're always wondering insecurely how they're coming across, and not knowing, because the other person is also not letting on. Maybe a new schtick would be good for a change?

The last scene also seemed a bit out of character for one of the participants, given several specific statements made earlier in the book.

Overall, though, a good mixture of adventure with a bit of romance, and it adds a couple of complications to the series in progress. I have the next book on preorder.

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Thursday 1 October 2015

Review: Fool Moon

Fool Moon Fool Moon by Jim Butcher
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is my, I don't know, third or fourth re-read, at least, and I still couldn't remember the ins and outs of the plot. Perhaps this is because the author thought it would be cool to come up with as many kinds of werewolves as possible, and then put all of them in the book, so for a long time it's extremely unclear which of them are responsible for the crimes.

I suppose that's similar to the Agatha Christie school of mystery writing, where everyone could have done the murder. It's confusing, though. Maybe even more so than it's meant to be.

There's also a lot more graphic violence and horrible death than I usually go for, so I'm trying to remember why it was that I stuck with this series back when I had a lower tolerance for that than I do now (and it's still pretty low).

I think it's the characters. Harry is so committed to doing the right thing, even when badly and repeatedly beaten up and facing highly probable death, that you can't help being on his side.

I agree with those who say that this isn't nearly as good as the series became later on. The minor characters are more developed, later, and the plots consist of more than "Harry blunders about getting beaten on in the noir tradition, until eventually the mystery shakes loose more through his persistence than his skill." Still, I did enjoy the ride, for the most part (could have done with less grisly death).

The audio this time is better than the first book. The gasps, sighs and sniffs have been edited out this time, and only the reader's occasional word blunders remain to annoy.

I'm enjoying going back through the series and reminding myself of how the secondary characters (and even Harry) started out. The Alphas, the late-teenage werewolves, are so young and earnest here, though they seem to have lost their environmental activism after this book. I think this may also have been the last book that had potions in it, which is probably a good decision, on the whole. They're a bit like Q's devices in James Bond: you know they'll turn out to be exactly what the hero needs at some critical juncture, and then they'll never be mentioned again.

Plenty of flaws, but also plenty going for it, and so I press on through the audio reread.

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