Monday 21 December 2015

Review: Steal the Sky

Steal the Sky Steal the Sky by Megan E. O'Keefe
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoyed Megan O'Keefe's story in last year's Writers of the Future Volume 30, and I enjoyed this, a better-than-average steampunk novel. It wasn't without some issues that are common in steampunk, but it was well told, the plot made sense and was well constructed, the characters weren't idiots, and it worked well as a story.

One huge problem with the steampunk genre is that very few people writing it stay within their vocabulary - they often use words that are either not quite the right words, or else are definitely the wrong words, for what they mean. I read an ARC of this book via NetGalley (in exchange for an honest review), so I don't know which of the numerous examples of this problem will be corrected by the copy editor; hopefully most of them, and all of the comma splices. (As a former editor myself, though, I know that no editor catches everything, and it's better if the writer doesn't commit the errors in the first place.)

Another feature of steampunk which could be seen as a flaw is thin worldbuilding. Often, this hinges on one, essentially magical, substance, frequently something to do with flight, which can also function as a McGuffin to drive the plot and a deus ex machina any time the plot threatens to go off the rails. In Steal the Sky, this role is taken by selium, or sel, a lighter-than-air substance (kind of a fluid, kind of a gas) which can be detected and manipulated by "sel-sensitives" with what amount to psychic powers. The idea is interestingly explored, though, and I didn't feel that the author pushed it too far or used it to paper over the cracks too often.

Something that a lot of steampunk books fail to do, and which this one succeeds at, is capturing the fight against social injustice that was so much a feature of the real, historical 19th century. All too often, the main characters are privileged, and the story becomes a clone of an imperialist Boys' Own Paper or Girls' Own Paper adventure, with the fight being against villains who want to disturb the status quo. Here, while one of the characters is a down-on-his-luck nobleman from the oldest colonial family on the conquered continent, he is fighting on the side of the oppressed, and the book's sympathies are clearly with the underdog and against the powerful.

The plot moves along well, with plenty of tension and action, but leaves time and space for some character development. Things are grim, but not grimdark or despairing. Overall, a good effort, and if the author can overcome her tendency to use incorrect homonyms and to comma splice, I think she has a bright future in the field.

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Wednesday 9 December 2015

Review: The Dragon Beshrewed (Illustrated)

The Dragon Beshrewed (Illustrated) The Dragon Beshrewed (Illustrated) by M.M. Stauffer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a book that not only needs, but deserves, better copy editing, since it's engaging, well told and has some freshness about it. It's not just the same old stupid Chosen One plot recycled for the Nth time. It's dark, without being grimdark. It has a genuinely strong female protagonist, who thinks and solves problems and takes brave, decisive action and doesn't make stupid decisions that require that she be rescued by a man. (Her male sidekicks do help, but she is definitely the protagonist.)

Overall, I enjoyed it, and that's what kept me reading, despite the many editing issues (all the usual ones, plus a homonym error that's new to me: "codec" where it should be "codex"). However, because those issues occurred frequently and were a constant distraction, it didn't sell me on getting the sequel.

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Monday 7 December 2015

Review: Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew

Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew by Ursula K. Le Guin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've long admired Ursula Le Guin's writing, which manages to be simultaneously literary-not-pretentious and genre-not-cliched. So as part of my project of reading books on writing craft to improve my own writing, I picked up this little volume.

I'll admit that I have a bad habit of not doing the exercises, so I didn't get as much out of it as I perhaps could have. I applaud the general approach, though, of looking at the basic elements of writing (definitely including getting grammar and punctuation correct), isolating them, and working through exercises to see what the effect is. Only by understanding our tools and the effects they produce do we become capable craftspeople.

I also appreciated the acknowledgement that plot is not the only way to get a story, and conflict is not the only way to get a plot. Here's Ms Le Guin:

"I define story as a narrative of events (external or psychological) which moves through time or implies the passage of time, and which involves change.
"I define plot as a form of story which uses action as its mode, usually in the form of conflict, and which closely and intricately connects one act to another, usually through a causal chain, ending in a climax.
"Climax is one kind of pleasure; plot is one kind of story. A strong, shapely plot is a pleasure in itself. It can be reused generation after generation. It provides an armature for narrative that beginning writers may find invaluable.
"But most serious modern fictions can't be reduced to a plot, or retold without fatal loss except in their own words."

Did I learn a great deal from this book, as an intermediate writer trying to reach the next level? No. But I'm glad I read it, because it helped me think through (again) some important ideas about writing, and I would definitely recommend it.

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