Wednesday 28 December 2016

Review: Scientific Romance

Review: Scientific Romance, edited by Brian Stableford.

Before the term "science fiction" was invented, stories of scientists and their possible discoveries, of fantastic (but at least remotely plausible) voyages, and of strange (but not overtly supernatural) phenomena where known as "scientific romances" in France, Britain, and the US. This volume collects a number of these early works, from all three countries. 

I read an ARC from Netgalley, so I don't know if it's due for another editing pass before publication; the version I saw had a number of scanning recognition errors that had not been corrected. Picking these up requires painstaking work by a good proofreader, and they're the bane of any book based on a scan. 

Setting that aside, the stories themselves varied from the merely historically interesting to some that I still enjoyed as a modern reader. A few are clumsy explorations of philosophical points. There seem to have been a lot of socialists, for example, who expressed their ideas by means of scientific romance - not just H.G. Wells, the giant of the field in Britain, who is represented here by "The Star," but several others too. I don't mean to imply that all the socialist stories are mere clunky propaganda pieces; "The Child of the Phalanstery" by Grant Allen is an extremely well-constructed speculation on the darker side of a utopia with an active eugenics/euthanasia program, and is relevant to debates going on today.  

Others of the stories are, now that we have so much more scientific knowledge, obviously impossible, though despite that, I found Jack London's "The Shadow and the Flash" still effective as a story. The same can be said of Conan Doyle's "The Horror of the Heights". But several succeed both as stories and in terms of their speculations. It's interesting to see some of the perennial themes: the danger of humans being replaced by intelligent machines, the creation of an unstoppable plague, the end of the world from various causes, radical life extension, interference with human memory. There's even a kind of predecessor to "Planet of the Apes" in Edmond Harcourt's "The Gorilloid".  

A number of the authors were familiar names to me: Nathanael Hawthorne, Fitz-James O'Brien, James Clerk Maxwell, Ambrose Bierce, Frank R. Stockton, Jerome K. Jerome, Jack London, William Hope Hodgson and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Others were new, mainly the French ones, which are presented in translations which read exactly like the English-language works of the time. 

There's a scholarly introduction - this is clearly a kind of literature on which the editor is an expert - and an appendix that lists the major works of scientific romance published from 1833 to 1914. I'm not sure why Frankenstein (1818) doesn't make the list; it seems as if it would fit the parameters. 

Most of the works here are, of course, by men (I believe Camille Debans' "The Dancing Partner" is the sole exception), and for a balance, anyone interested in early speculative fiction should read the stories in The Feminine Future: Early Science Fiction by Women Writers, which contains some excellent stories from a slightly different, but overlapping, time period (1873-1930). If you're interested in the roots of science fiction, though, either as a scholar or simply as a reader, Stableford's Scientific Romance is a good collection.

Saturday 26 November 2016

Review: The Best of All Possible Worlds

The Best of All Possible Worlds The Best of All Possible Worlds by Karen Lord
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is one of those books that are becoming more common these days: thoughtful; slow-moving and mostly low-tension, with occasional bursts of action; good-hearted characters who are essentially early-21st-century liberals in their worldview; beautifully written and impeccably edited; fresh in premise; masterful in execution. Into this nameless and assorted category I would group Ann Leckie's Ancillary series; The Goblin Emperor; A Natural History of Dragons; and Chalice, among books I've read relatively recently.

It's also the kind of modern planetary romance that, say, Sherri S. Tepper or Julian May wrote; not a space opera, because it's not in space, and technically science-fictional, but with psychic powers playing a prominent role. It's even more reminiscent of Ursula K. Le Guin, and I would be astonished if Le Guin was not a huge influence on the author.

Now that I've set it in a context of other books and authors, what is it about? Well, one of the most prominent and highly respected races of humans, in a galaxy with several of those, have lost their planet and most of their people to enemy action. Because, for sociological reasons, more men than women spent time off-planet, there's now a shortage of women among the survivors, and they want to find ways to preserve their culture as well as their genetic heritage. (It turns out late in the book that, because of the way their psychic powers work, they actually don't do well at all if they're not pair-bonded, and they may even become dangerous; but this isn't developed very much.)

Accordingly, on a planet which for various reasons has become a destination for many groups of refugees and displaced people, the proud and self-disciplined race are looking among the cultural groups descended from those of their people who left their planet or were pushed out in the past, in the hope of finding brides. The main character, a local civil servant, is assigned to help them in this quest, and ends up having the universe's least romantic romance with the leader of the search.

Even though I call it an unromantic romance, it was still quite sweet, just as the civil servant was interesting (and wryly funny). The pace is unhurried, but it doesn't feel too stretched out; I wasn't bored, it just wasn't a constant barrage of plot incidents. There are certainly moments of tension, but if tension, passion, conflict and drama are what you mainly look for in a book, you shouldn't look here. They all occur, but, like the events of the plot, they're widely spaced and not, for the most part, built up to any great heights. It's more a thoughtful book than it is a spectacular one, and the overall tone is of warm-hearted maturity.

The title, of course, is from Voltaire's satire Candide, and he took it from Leibnitz; I'm afraid I didn't quite get the significance of the reference. The refuge planet is neither utopian nor dystopian, though it's peaceful, and with a few notable exceptions the people living there are well-disposed towards others.

It took me a while to figure out what the deal was with Earth, and where we were in the timeline. Earth is under a ban, meaning that nobody is meant to interfere with it or make open contact, but I wasn't sure until late in the book whether this was at our time or after it (it appears to be more or less at our time, though it could easily be some time before or after). Various groups have been rescued from disasters on Earth at different times, though, by mysterious guardians, and brought to the planet of refuge, which justifies - I suppose - the fact that most of the cultural references are to Earth culture. It's a bit of a worldbuilding shortcut, if not accompanied by any cultural references to any of the other cultures, and that, for me, was the most noticeable weakness in the book - if you don't count the missed opportunities to build up tension, conflict and drama, and I think that was a deliberate and understandable choice by the author rather than a failure of craft. (I also want to reiterate that those elements were present, just not front and centre.)

I do find, though, that I mostly respect these books more than I love them. Tension and conflict are the salt and fat of literature, and if you have a book that's all salt and fat, then you have literary junk food - meaning that it will be popular, comparatively easy to produce, and profitable, but not critically acclaimed or respected. But there are haute cuisine ways to use salt and fat to enhance the flavour of fine food, and sometimes these more languid books do miss opportunities to bring out their philosophical flavour with better seasoning. It's a tricky balance to strike. You don't want to distract from the reflective, insightful nature of the book by setting off fireworks all the time, but you also want to engage your audience emotionally as well as intellectually. For me, The Best of All Possible Worlds walked that line well, but for other people's taste it will fail.

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Monday 17 October 2016

Review: Goldenfire

Goldenfire Goldenfire by A.F.E. Smith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I gave the first book in this series five stars, and was eager for the second. Although I didn't enjoy it quite as much, for reasons I'll explore shortly, it's certainly very good and I don't hesitate to recommend it.

Once again, it was impeccably edited; I didn't notice a single error, which is vanishingly rare. I'm lucky if I find one or two books in a hundred where I don't see any errors at all.

The first book managed to juggle seven point-of-view characters, by my count; gave them all distinct arcs; and pulled it off successfully. It also successfully wound a mystery plot, three different romance plots, and a thriller plot closely together, and paid them all off at the end. This book, I felt, was less successful, in part because the characters and plots were not so tightly wound together.

There's still a mystery/thriller plot, which involves an assassin whose identity (and gender) is withheld from the reader for most of the book, with several candidates presented. I did eventually guess the correct one, but not until late in the story. Paradoxically, this single main plotline (with a couple of minor plots involving characters' relationships and some coming-of-age) feels more diffuse than the multiple plot threads in the first book - partly, perhaps, because one of the participants is physically distant, out of the city that was the setting of everything in the first book, and with not much communication with the other viewpoint characters.

Of the seven viewpoint characters in the first book, two are now dead; one doesn't figure in this book (a pity, because I liked her, but I can see where she wasn't needed for this plot); one is still a significant character, but not a viewpoint character' and the remaining three still have viewpoints. In addition, there's the viewpoint of the assassin, and a group of trainees for the Helm elite guard, of whom, by my count, four are major characters, and two of those have viewpoints. There's also another viewpoint character, the training master, who appeared in a minor role in the first book, and another important character, the training master's partner, who doesn't have a viewpoint (mainly in order to preserve the mystery about who the assassin is). So, unless I've miscounted, still seven viewpoint characters, plus four other characters whose actions are significant to the plot but whose viewpoints we don't see into. True, one is the assassin, whose viewpoint we do see, but we don't find out which one until late, so that character almost counts as two: the assassin, who we hear from, but with minimal depth of information in order to preserve the mystery; and the assassin's cover persona, who we only see through the eyes of other characters.

Unlike the first book, where each character had a very different arc, here two of the ten important characters have very similar motivations, though they do resolve them differently.

Having more characters, some of whom don't have viewpoints, some of whom don't have much direct interaction with the others, and two of whom are very similarly motivated, yielded, for me, a less involving story than the first book, where we had deeper insight into a smaller number of characters, all of whose motivations and choices centred around a single set of events from different angles. I can see how this setup was necessary in order to create the mystery around the assassin's identity and provide some red herrings, and that was well done, but I still enjoyed it a little less.

I'm still keen for the third book, and glad to hear that it's now with the publisher. I'll be watching for it to come out.

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Monday 10 October 2016

Review: A Christmas Gone Perfectly Wrong

A Christmas Gone Perfectly Wrong A Christmas Gone Perfectly Wrong by Cecilia Grant
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I've started reading some romance as preparation for writing it, and found this recommended on a blog - one about feminist romance, I believe. It's very well executed, tightly plotted, and almost flawlessly edited.

Since the setting is Regency England, "feminist" consists of "determined young woman defies social convention and insists on having a voice." This is well done, and I found it believable; the heroine's father, who raised her alone, is something of an eccentric philosopher, paving the way for her to be both naive about society and not strongly inculcated with its norms. Yet she's not a headstrong, egotistical princess; her defiance of convention is always on pragmatic grounds, and well argued. I would call this book an example of male-positive feminism, too, in that (while highlighting that many men are not like this) the hero is respectful of women in general and the heroine in particular, and treats her well throughout. His arc is to loosen up and be more pragmatic and less of a prig, and to consider what he wants as well as what is expected of him; he's neither a brute nor an idiot, something I appreciate in a male romance character.

This is a novella. Sometimes, novellas are novels that haven't been developed enough; other times, they're short stories that have been excessively padded. This is neither. It's a novella because it's executed without a word, a scene, a description or an incident being wasted. Everything is tightly woven together; even the falcon does double duty, as the reason why the hero is at the heroine's house in the first place and as an effective symbol which helps the main characters think about their situation.

Their musings, and the way their thinking about themselves and each other evolves through a series of misadventures, helped to push my rating to five stars, which I don't grant lightly; I only give it to books that are both well executed and also have some depth, and this one qualifies. Without bogging down the plot - indeed, as an essential part of the plot - the characters reflect in quite a profound way about what makes a foundation for a good relationship, and come to good conclusions.

I noticed one single editing mistake (the average number of errors I notice in a book, indie or trad-pub, is about two dozen), and it was a missing quotation mark at about the 72% mark.

Overall, a fine effort, and I'll be looking into the author's other books.

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Friday 7 October 2016

Review: Darkhaven

Darkhaven Darkhaven by A.F.E. Smith
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Impeccably edited, masterfully plotted - with not one, not two, but three romance subplots; a mystery; intrigue; and some strong thriller elements, all in a lightly sketched but effective early-steampunkish secondary-world fantasy setting. With shifters. And not your usual wolves, either, but wyverns, alicorns and other wondrous beasties.

First, let's talk about the editing. As a copy editor myself, I notice editing errors, and HarperCollins' books are usually full of them. In this, I didn't notice a single one. I suspect that has a lot to do with the author being an editor in her day job, but regardless of the reason, it's rare, and commendable.

The characters are well drawn: conflicted, flawed, sometimes obsessive, but mostly wanting to do the right thing (the exception is an excellently depicted, scarily effective, and believable villain). All seven viewpoint characters have strong, and contrasting, arcs. The plot, with its many moving parts, fits together beautifully, and the author isn't afraid to mix tragic and happy endings. The book both brings all of the threads to a conclusion and sets up the dominoes for a sequel, which I suspect may take place a generation later. And which I will definitely be looking forward to buying, by the way.

The setting isn't especially prominent; it's early industrial age, with coal-powered trams and factories, but guns are new, foreign, and rare. It's mostly background, but what there is of it is sketched competently, and there's plenty of space for development. The shifter parts have great sensawunda as well as a darker, more threatening aspect that helps to drive the plot.

All in all, highly recommended, both for its excellent craft and its compelling story.

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Tuesday 27 September 2016

Review: Silver on the Road

Silver on the Road Silver on the Road by Laura Anne Gilman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've had this on my Kindle for a while, and just recently felt in the mood for it. It's hard to categorise, which I like; you could call it a "weird Western," but that would give almost completely the wrong impression. It's, among other things, an alternate history, in which a powerful supernatural being, known as "the devil" to people in the neighbouring countries, presides over a land called the Territory that sits between the Mississippi River - border of the United States - and the Spanish lands beyond the Rocky Mountains. Within these borders, various forms of magic, mostly small, and supernatural beings exist. The date appears to be somewhere around 1800.
The book is a coming-of-age story, in which a sixteen-year-old girl, raised in the saloon which is the devil's headquarters, makes an agreement with him to become his Left Hand. This involves travelling the Territory, so she is handed over to a mentor, an experienced rider who is to teach her what she needs to know to travel the roads safely. Together, they discover and must deal with an invading bit of magic which has become dangerous to the Territory and its inhabitants.
The pace is languid, epic-fantasy style, which is probably my main criticism of the book. I prefer a less leisurely narrative, in which the author doesn't take an entire paragraph to say that the protagonist got some coffee and an apple. The chapters (or "parts") are very long, which means that I often stopped reading in the middle of one, sometimes in the middle of a scene in which not much was happening. There will be readers who do this and never come back again.
I kept coming back largely because of the evocative world. One measure, for me, of a book is how many ideas it gives me for my own stories, and this one gave me several - not things I want to directly steal, but new thoughts that were triggered off by an oblique or passing reference. I had the same experience reading Max Gladstone.
The plot itself is a fairly standard coming-of-age fantasy, albeit interestingly genderflipped, and between that and the languid pace, plus a perhaps gratuitous level of hostility to Christianity, it didn't quite make it to five stars for me. It's a strong four, though. I almost gave it my "well-edited" tag, but I spotted 11 minor typos (ranging from a missing period, through common mistypings such as "that" for "than," to word substitutions like "pavement" for "payment," "house" for "hour" and "suspicious" for "suspicions"). They were typos, though, slips of the fingers rather than indications that the author didn't know how to punctuate or what words mean. The prose is highly competent, smooth and evocative, and conveys a good story in a fascinating world.

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Wednesday 21 September 2016

Review: A Night in the Lonesome October

A Night in the Lonesome October A Night in the Lonesome October by Roger Zelazny
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This review is specifically of the ebook edition published by Farrago in 2016. I'd read this book before, in paperback, I think from the library (since it isn't in my large and battered collection of Zelazny; I'm a considerable fan); but took the opportunity of the ebook being on offer from Netgalley for review to read it again. It had been many years, and I didn't remember much about it, so it was effectively a first-time read.

One of the things I wanted to see was how good a job they'd done on the ebook conversion, and I'm happy to report that it was an excellent one. Often, ebook editions of pre-ebook-era paperbacks suffer from a great many errors in optical character recognition, and publishing houses don't always put in the considerable work necessary to correct them (looking at you, Open Road, and your pathetic job with Andre Norton's Sargasso of Space). This edition is very clean indeed. I spotted one missing quotation mark, and three occasions when the capital "I" in the exclamation "Ia!" had been misrendered as a lower-case "l" at the start of a sentence. That was it; apart from that, no typos that I noticed (and I usually notice them).

Before I discuss the book itself, one more thing about this edition. It's illustrated. I personally found the illustrations cartoony, and at odds with the tone of the text. Its humour and absurdity are understated, whereas the cartoonish distortions of the illustrations were much more extreme.

A couple of things caught my attention about the writing of the book itself. It contains the characteristic Zelaznian word "occurred," which, while it isn't in all of his books, is in many of them, used in a particular way (something strange manifesting itself with no obvious agency). I always look for it in a Zelazny, and am oddly pleased when I find it. It also contains a few Americanisms, despite its British setting, such as "siding" for the outside of a house, and "off of," but since the nationality of the narrator is not established, this wasn't much of a problem.

There were a few passages of alternating dialog, mostly between the dog and the cat, which I found hard to follow because they lacked enough dialog tags to identify who was speaking. I had to go back and count, and that's always disruptive to my immersion in the story.

The story, told in a kind of diary (though it's never explained how the narrator, a dog, keeps a diary), chronicles the 31 days of October, building up to a ritual at the full moon, which will either cause the Lovecraftian Elder Gods to manifest on Earth or prevent them from doing so. Which one it is depends on the manoeuvrings of the "players," who form two factions, the Openers and the Closers. It's initially not clear who belongs to which faction; the dog, Snuff, and his master Jack (by implication, Jack the Ripper), are Closers, trying to prevent the manifestation of the gods. There's a druid; the Count (Dracula, though the name is never used); Larry Talbot, the American werewolf in London; Crazy Jill the witch; a mad Eastern European monk; the vicar; the Great Detective (Sherlock Holmes, again never named but clear enough); the Good Doctor (also not named, but obviously Frankenstein); a pair named Morris and MacCab, who I couldn't place as a reference, but who seem to be graverobbers similar to Burke and Hare; and a number of animals, who can talk to one another, but can only talk to the humans at certain times. Snuff builds alliances and shares information, and even though there are ultimately two factions, there's a division that cuts across and beyond the factions, between what I might call sympathetic and unsympathetic characters. Because my sympathies were engaged both for and against people (and animals) on both sides, the narrative exerted a firm grasp and made sure I wanted to know how it all worked out. While Zelazny's characters are seldom deeply complex, they're always distinctive, and despite the large cast it was easy to remember who was who and what their previous moves had been.

This is a skilfully written work, produced late in Zelazny's too-short life, which uses allusion to commonly understood horror tropes and characters to create a rich situation without spelling everything out. That's a tactic that can easily backfire, if the author just introduces the trope and moves on without doing anything with it, but Zelazny builds on his tropes and gives them new twists that make them more interesting. He maintains a constant tension between a matter-of-fact tone with a note of irony; usually indirect or allusive reference to horror; and sympathetic characters doing their best in a bizarre situation, and balances the three with great ability. He then brings it to an unexpected, clever, and satisfying conclusion.

When I came to write this review, I found that I'd marked the book as read, with a three-star rating. No doubt that was my memory of reading it some years before, and a reflection of my general dislike for the horror genre. Re-reading it gave me a greater appreciation for what Zelazny has managed to pull off here, and I enjoyed it considerably.

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Monday 19 September 2016

Review: Honor's Flight

Honor's Flight Honor's Flight by Lindsay Buroker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I always enjoy a Lindsay Buroker, and this is no exception. Swift, exciting action; under-resourced but still resourceful heroes; no-nonsense, competent female characters who are, nevertheless, not without a touch of emotional vulnerability; a mismatched, bickering, but ultimately united ensemble cast; a gruff military man with a troubled past - the classic Buroker elements are all here, combined pleasingly.

I did have to suspend a bit of disbelief at how far the protagonist was willing to go in order to defend her former enemy against her own side, but somehow it seemed reasonable.

Highly entertaining and well done, as usual.

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Review: Burning Bright

Burning Bright Burning Bright by Melissa McShane
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Smoothly written and excellently edited, with an exciting and absorbing plot, this book kept me reading after I had planned to go to bed. Not without its flaws, but the strengths more than make up for it.

If Temeraire is O'Brien meets Anne McCaffrey, this is O'Brien meets Julian May, or possibly early Sherry Tepper. Rather than the dragons of Temeraire, this Napoleonic naval story has Talents, who have what amount to psychic powers: telekinesis, teleportation, telepathy, clairvoyance, empathy, and, in the case of the protagonist, the ability to control fire. In fact, she has an Extraordinary-level ability with fire, which means she can extinguish it as well as lighting it.

This is a great premise, and the author explores the fire aspect well: its pleasures, its danger, its limitations as well as its powers, and what it means for a well-brought-up young woman of the Regency period to have such an ability. In order to avoid a compelled marriage, she convinces the First Lord of the Admiralty to use her as a weapon, and that drives the rest of the plot. She must confront the realities of being in the military, including how she feels about killing enemies and about the death of friends. She must also learn to stand up for herself in a man's world, which provides a wonderful character arc, and she gets the opportunity, rare for a woman of her class and time period, to be a friend and colleague to men.

Although I thoroughly enjoyed the book, I did note some issues. These weren't, for a change, with the copy editing; that was excellent. Rather, they were details of the setting and one or two things that looked like plot holes.

The idea of the Talents is wonderful, but I didn't get a sense of any depth of history to them. How were they regarded in earlier ages? What was the relationship of religion to them? (This could easily have been explored, as the ship's chaplain was an empath, though a very bad one.) How had they changed history - and how had they not changed history, so that England was fighting the Napoleonic Wars in what should have been a very different world? (This is also one of the weaknesses of Temeraire, or any historical fantasy, for that matter, and is, I assume, why Mary Robinette Kowal made the rule that the magic in her Glamourist Histories must be weak enough not to be able to change history very much.) I also didn't get a sense of how they were used outside a military context, which they surely would have been. Given that this is early-19th-century Britain, I would expect to see an elaborate set of social conventions around the talents, with special titles, forms of address, perhaps guilds with livery and officers and symbols and ritual, gradations of talent and training, odd medieval terminology and traditions. Instead, they felt as if they'd suddenly come into existence just a few years before the story was set (which was not what we were told).

I could ignore all that, but there was also a question that kept occurring to me throughout the book: why don't the Scorchers (the fire-controllers) simply target the ships' magazines? Does their talent only work line-of-sight? This question could have been raised in order to be dismissed - but at one point the magazine is targeted. That seems like a plot hole to me.

There's a convenient coincidence, too, when the protagonist finds the pirates' base. There's only the one, so I'll reluctantly allow it, especially since there's plenty of bravery and danger going on at the time.

Just a couple more nitpicks, and I'll return to praising it. First, at one point it indirectly quotes a Rudyard Kipling poem ("Danegeld"), about a century too early, though I suppose Kipling could have been drawing on an existing saying. Second, and more importantly, there's some insistence that seeing black people in the West Indies was a strange novelty to the protagonist. It's now well established that there were plenty of black people in Britain around this period; there's at least one in Jane Austen, in fact. Possibly, as a sheltered daughter of a country family, she might not have encountered any, but they were hardly as exotic as it would seem from the way they're treated here.

Going in, I thought this would be a romance. For a very long time, it wasn't, and I finally decided it wasn't going to be - and then a romance plot did turn up near the end after all, so I can't quite decide what to call it. Military adventure fantasy with psychic powers and a (late-arriving) romance subplot, I think. Whatever it is, I enjoyed it very much, loved the main character, and want to read more in the series.

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Tuesday 13 September 2016

Review: Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint: Techniques and Exercises for Crafting Dynamic Characters and Effective Viewpoints

Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint: Techniques and Exercises for Crafting Dynamic Characters and Effective Viewpoints Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint: Techniques and Exercises for Crafting Dynamic Characters and Effective Viewpoints by Nancy Kress
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the second writing book I've read by Nancy Kress, and like Beginnings, Middles & Ends, it is excellently laid out and extremely thorough. It covers characterisation, emotion, and point of view with considerable depth and insight, and made me think through these elements of craft in detail and spot areas where I could improve.

Even though I consider myself an intermediate-level writer, have read a good many craft books, and am told that characters are among my strengths, I still learned a lot from it, just because it is so lucid and comprehensive. I particularly appreciated the summaries at the end of each chapter, and the further bullet-point summary at the end of the book.

There are exercises at the end of each chapter. Following my normal (probably bad) practice, I didn't do these. Nor did I think the idea of writing up a "mini-bio" for each character would help me very much, at least not in the very specific format that the author gives. I do write character notes, but I adapt the content to what I'm setting out to do with the characters and what kind of book I'm writing, and I think this would be more useful than following a template exactly.

Examples in the book are mostly taken from literary novels, but the author does spend some time talking about the differences in practice between "literary" and "commercial" fiction.

Apart from confusing "discreet" and "discrete" and a couple of minor typos, the editing is good.

Overall, recommended for writers who want to improve their craft, and I appreciate having it recommended to me by a colleague.

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Review: The Changing Land

The Changing Land The Changing Land by Roger Zelazny
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I'm a huge Zelazny fan, and have most of his books, apart from a few of the very obscure ones. This is neither one of my favourites nor one of his best-known ones, but I have read it several times. The most recent re-read was because someone critiquing one of my short stories was reminded of it, and suggested I could read it for inspiration.

Reading it with a critical eye, I remember why it's one of the lesser Zelaznys. A lot of the description is blow-by-blow action, which goes on rather too long. The frequent bizarre transformations are deliberately meaningless, manifestations of a mad god. The overall feel is leaning towards Jack Vance, in terms of an abundance of characters with no redeeming features, and that's far from my favourite part of sword-and-sorcery. The main character's motivation is revenge, and even though he takes the time to rescue some people - there are some decent characters in the book, and he is arguably one - he has a lot of flaws and darkness in his makeup too.

Unusually for the time and for Zelazny, this book contains a couple of gay characters, though both of them die without first receiving any character development to speak of. There are two women, one an innocent who functions mainly as a damsel in distress (despite being, on the face of it, a competent adventurer), and one being an oversexed, underdressed, and rather cruel enchantress. I wish I could say that this was unusual for Zelazny, but it's not.

Zelazny's strength was always in exuberant and original worldbuilding, and that's certainly on display here, though not without a few familiar tropes from the sorcery part of sword-and-sorcery. A flawed book, far from his best, but not without its enjoyable features.

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Monday 5 September 2016

Review: Mysterion: Rediscovering the Mysteries of the Christian Faith

Mysterion: Rediscovering the Mysteries of the Christian Faith Mysterion: Rediscovering the Mysteries of the Christian Faith by Donald S. Crankshaw
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I explained this book briefly to a friend as follows: "Aslan is not a tame lion."

I'm a Christian, but I don't usually read Christian fiction. This is largely because I expect it to be trite, shallow, neat, and preachy. The stories in this book are none of these things; in fact, some of them are very disturbing, all of them are thought-provoking, and all of them are well written. A number of the authors have impressive publication credentials in the fantasy and science fiction field.

I hope nobody is put off by the conventional tone of the acknowledgements from reading through to the introduction, which lays out the project: an anthology of good-quality fiction which deals with the mysteries, uncertainties, and difficult questions of the Christian faith, featuring Christian characters and themes in an authentic (and not necessarily comfortable, tidy, or doctrinally "pure") manner. Some Christians won't like it at all. Some non-Christians will find it, I think, approachable and interesting. And, of course, vice versa.

Let's go story by story.

"The Monastic," Daniel Southwell: an Irish-American priest who has taken up a hermitage on an island in Lake Superior must figure out how to relate to the mythical creatures he encounters there. Beautifully described and deeply characterised.

"When I Was Dead," Stephen Case: reminding me of C.S. Lewis's The Great Divorce , a story of something between Heaven and Purgatory, but with some interesting twists in terms of what it's like to speak to someone who went on before you.

"Forlorn," Bret Carter: a horror story, with beautifully handled suspense.

"Too Poor to Sin," H. L. Fullerton: a dystopia run by merciless angels, where sin and forgiveness are a kind of currency, used to manipulate humans into serving in the angels' war.

"Golgotha," David Tallerman: a disturbing encounter for a missionary to the South Seas, told by a sailor who witnessed it. Has a touch of Mythos about it, but just a touch.

"A Lack of Charity," James Beamon: another horror story, set either in a nightmare trans-dimensional landscape or in a real world horribly transformed by being seen through the lens of insanity. Disturbing themes of murder, serial murder, and rape, alongside forgiveness or the lack thereof, revenge, and the demonic.

"Of Thine Impenetrable Spirit," Robert B Finegold, MD: post-cyberpunk science fiction, addressing the age-old questions of mind, soul, and their relationship with the physical form. I didn't feel that it brought anything really new to the idea, and I found the premise unconvincing, though the protagonist's motivation (love for his son) was well portrayed. The lady-or-the-tiger ending was, I think, justified, for purposes of provoking thought in the reader; though this can easily be a gimmick or a way of avoiding writing the ending, I didn't think it was in this case.

"A Good Hoard," Pauline J. Alama: fantasy humour, well executed and with a clear, but not heavy-handed message about materialism.

"Yuri Gagarin Sees God," J. S. Bangs: one of those stories that plays with urban legend and questions it, in this case effectively.

"Confinement," Kenneth Schneyer: angels seem to be where a lot of people go when they think "Christian speculative fiction," and this is one of a number of stories in this book which use the idea. Each of them treats it differently, though, and this one (the angel bringing a woman to face something about herself) is well done. May be politically distasteful to some readers.

"The Angel Hunters," Christian Leithart: another, completely different take on angels as interdimensional aliens, drawing on the visions of Ezekiel, but through the POV of a tough female mercenary with a troubled past.

"Cutio," F. R. Michaels: told in a series of emails, an encounter with an automaton from an earlier century, and another exploration of the idea of soulless machines and judgement without mercy.

"St. Roomba's Gospel," Rachael K. Jones: a whimsical, lyrical story about a cleaning robot that does, apparently, possess both a soul and faith.

"Yuki and the Seven Oni," S. Q. Eries: an unusually thorough rewriting of "Snow White," not only in a different setting - Japan under the Shogunate - but with a very different plotline, though most of the classic non-plot elements are there (notably excluding the prince, unless Christ is implied to fill this role). It works well, and the Christian character shows great compassion and courage.

"A Recipe for Rain and Rainbows," Beth Cato: a nice bit of Southern American weird fiction, with a satisfying theme of revenge versus forgiveness.

"This Far Gethsemane," G. Scott Huggins: sets up a situation of a human unbeliever dealing with a missionary-converted alien on a remote planet - so, putting a science-fictional gloss over a classic storyline, but here using it to address ideas of violence, nonviolence, and friendship. I didn't find its resolution entirely satisfactory, but I think it was supposed to be messy rather than neat.

"Ascension," Laurel Amberdine: a story of finding faith through a miracle, but I liked how the character chose to deal with the miraculous object and the symbolism of it.

"Cracked Reflections," Joanna Michal Hoyt: a difficult story of the historical immigrant experience in America around the time of World War I, with resonances for our own time in the nativist propaganda and fear of the Other. The fantastic elements are slight; it's more of a gritty real-world historical, dealing with pacifism and the cooption of faith to patriotism (here, out of fear of being othered).

"The Physics of Faith," Mike Barretta: post-apocalyptic, dark and disturbing (in other words, not to my personal taste), with a strange fantastical element that I assume is some kind of reference to the idea of the Rapture.

"Horologium," Sarah Ellen Rogers: deeply researched, deeply felt, but for me the plot wasn't strong enough, and it came closest of any of the stories in the book to preaching. The fourteenth-century mystics are interesting to me, and I did enjoy the story, but I felt it needed more development and some editing down.

In summary, a wide variety of stories, both in terms of belonging to many different fantasy and science fiction subgenres and in terms of what kind of Christian elements they choose and how they develop them and use them in the stories. Angels and demons feature in more of the stories than any other single element, perhaps unsurprisingly, though there are also a couple of stories involving missionaries, a couple involving pacifism, several about coming to faith in one way or another, and several about forgiveness. Three stories deal with the question of machines and souls, two concluding that they can't have souls and one that they can.

While the dark and gritty tone of some of the stories was beyond the level I personally prefer, it also thoroughly dispels the stereotype of Christian fiction as happy fluffiness. There's some deep emotional, spiritual and philosophical territory being explored here. I don't know that any of the stories really attempt to explore theology, as such, though, apart from perhaps the last one. They take Christian ideas and themes as a starting point and take them in interesting story directions, without necessarily asserting that this is how the cosmos actually is, even metaphorically.

The book misses out on my "well-edited" tag primarily because it uses "ok" rather than "OK" or "okay" (resulting in the odd-looking "Ok" at the start of a sentence), and because it uses "alright" rather than "all right," a usage that a few publishing houses now permit, though the major style guides don't (and nor do I, when I'm editing). There are a few minor glitches, as well, which I'll pass on to the editor for future correction (Hebrew is read right to left, not left to right, for example). On the whole, though, the quality both of writing and of editing is excellent.

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of the book for purposes of review from one of the editors, who is a fellow member of a writers' forum I belong to (along with several of the contributors).

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Monday 29 August 2016

Review: Break the Chains

Break the Chains Break the Chains by Megan E. O'Keefe
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Some authors need a lot of editing, and, judging from the pre-release version I read (and the first in the series, which I also read before its release), this author is one of those. I hope she gets it, because underneath a great many vocabulary fumbles and some comma and tense mistakes, there's a well-told story here. At the same time, I didn't feel as engaged in this book as I did with the previous one, and I'm struggling to put my finger on exactly why.

The protagonists have clear goals, which they pursue determinedly and at cost, against fit opposition. This would normally make for a compelling story, but I wasn't quite compelled. Perhaps I was looking for the characters to succeed a little more frequently in making progress towards their goals, though they do succeed occasionally.

Could it be that the two main viewpoint characters are separated throughout the book, so we keep switching from one to the other, and they never actually appear in a scene together (even when they're in almost the same place)? That may be part of it. I seem to remember that they were separate for much of Book 1, but they did join up partway through that book and have some interaction. Here, they don't interact at all with each other. Each one has a sidekick to talk to, although of the two sidekicks, only Tibs is really developed much, and his role is mainly to insult his friend in order to keep him mentally stable. Otherwise, the sidekicks don't contribute very much to the plot that any other generic character in the same situation couldn't contribute, and this seems like a lost opportunity.

Then, too, we don't have an onstage villain through most of the story, either. While the viewpoint characters face opposition, much of it is circumstantial, or from people who have somewhat adjacent, rather than opposing, agendas, and who either become or could become allies. The first book had a strong onstage villain with her own clear agenda, in opposition to the heroes', and that, I think, made it more engaging.

I liked this (setting aside the many failures of vocabulary, which, as I say, hopefully will be fixed); but I didn't love it, and I'm not sure I'll pick up the sequel. It's a story with a lot of potential, but I didn't feel that potential was fully realised.

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Monday 15 August 2016

Review: Cold-Forged Flame

Cold-Forged Flame Cold-Forged Flame by Marie Brennan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I much enjoyed this author's A Natural History of Dragons, which some people found dull. This is not dull. It's a fast-moving novella with plenty of action and conflict.

The plot is straightforward and doesn't break new ground (fetch quest with obstacles to overcome), and it begins with amnesia. Neither of these things are promising on the face of it. Main-character amnesia, in particular, is a cliche start, and is sometimes an inexperienced author's way of dealing with the fact that they don't know who their character is either. In the hands of an experienced author like this one, though (or like Roger Zelazny, who pulled it off wonderfully in Nine Princes in Amber), it can work, and here it did, for me.

Even though none of the individual elements shows us anything new, they're executed so well that I still enjoyed it. In particular, I liked the defiant punk-rock attitude of the main character, which elevated her from an amnesiac blank slate/standard-issue kickass warrior chick to someone I wanted to cheer for. When faced with decisions, she considers carefully and chooses well and bravely, for clear reasons.

Overall, then, proof that you don't have to innovate to craft an enjoyable story, though I would have preferred more innovation, on the whole.

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Review: Spirit's End

Spirit's End Spirit's End by Rachel Aaron
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've complained in previous reviews of books in this series about the sudden left turn it took in (I think) Book 3, where the fun, exuberant heists and cons were abruptly converted into serious epic fantasy with cosmic stakes. I'm still annoyed by that. It's a good serious epic fantasy with cosmic stakes, but I didn't originally pick it up as that; I wanted fun heists.

Anyway, in this book, the serious epic fantasy with cosmic stakes comes to a great conclusion, well worth staying around for - and well worth pressing through the first part of the book, which, for me, felt less engaging than it eventually became later on. I think this was partly because it's been a long pause for me between Book 4 and Book 5, entirely because of the publisher's pricing policy (I was waiting for it to come down into the range that I'm prepared to pay for an ebook), and it took me a while to remember who all the characters were and their backstory.

One reason that I wasn't prepared to pay more for a trad-pub ebook is that these particular books aren't actually better edited than many indies (in fact, aren't as well edited as a lot of indies). There's nothing truly awful, but the author apparently doesn't know the coordinate comma rule, especially as applied to numbers, and either the editor doesn't know it either or has missed a great many. Likewise with homonyms (flare/flair, sometime/some time, sheaf/sheet, harrier/hairier, shown/shone, lest/unless, breaking/braking, principals/principles, leached/leeched - those last two are often hard to distinguish, but in this case it clearly should be "leeched"). The Restricted Archives become the Restrictive Archives two sentences later, and there are a few apostrophe errors, mostly with plurals. "Millennia" is used as the singular. I've seen far worse, but I've also seen a lot better, and would expect more from Orbit/Hachette.

However, those occasional issues, and my lingering annoyance at the genre switch-up, didn't prevent me from thoroughly enjoying the last part of the book. I was lucky enough to have leisure to read it at one sitting, which is exactly the way to read it. It takes the determination of the characters that's been established previously and shows them using that determination, and their various abilities (including, happily, Eli's cunning as a con-man) to resolve an apparently unresolvable and increasingly desperate situation. These are people who will do the right thing at any cost, which is the kind of character I like to read about; they're also ingenious, committed to one another, and prepared to set aside their personal conflicts for the greater good.

My overall verdict on the series is that, despite its disorienting shift of tone partway through and the less-than-fully-polished editing, it's thoroughly enjoyable and well worth reading.

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Thursday 11 August 2016

Review: Ancillary Mercy

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

It's hard to measure up to the amazing first book of this series, mainly because, in the sequels, the things that made the first one astonishing are no longer completely new. Still, it continues to be wonderful, doing extremely clever things with point of view that are only possible because of the speculative setting.

Something I didn't feel as much in this third book is the deliberately induced cognitive dissonance of the Raadchai language only using female pronouns, and not considering gender as a significant category in social interaction. I'm not sure whether this was a function of familiarity and adaptation on my part, or a difference in the writing, or a combination, but I found that I'd defaulted to assuming everyone was male, despite the pronouns - not ideal, but that's how my brain seems to have worked. YMMV.

The story itself is one of those beautifully layered, in some ways slow-moving stories that doesn't feel the need to insert conflict into every scene. There is certainly conflict, but this is far from being a thriller. I'm personally comfortable with that, but it won't be to everyone's taste; if it's not to your taste, though, you will have given up on the first book without ever getting near this one.

The book is structured more by an unfolding of meaning than by a traditional plot, too. Events occur and are linked together; you could write down a plot summary; but the real structure (IMO) is the emergence of theme, and the theme centres around independence, interdependence, love, trust, and power. Power has been a theme throughout the trilogy, and here the questions are made explicit: Do you hand power to the person who has demonstrated that they are only interested in how you can be useful to them, or to the person who has demonstrated that they are always interested in your wellbeing? (And what is a person, exactly?) This is shown not only through the main plot, but also a couple of subplots.

It's a good theme, and well handled, and beautifully told, with depth and richness and a lot of intelligence. I'm going to give it the full five stars, even though it's not as amazing as the first book, because if I had encountered a book this good as a standalone I would have five-starred it.

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Tuesday 2 August 2016

Review: Unidentified Funny Objects 5

Unidentified Funny Objects 5 Unidentified Funny Objects 5 by Alex Shvartsman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have a difficult relationship with funny SFF. As a Commonwealth citizen, I have more of a British than an American sense of humour, and a lot of "funny" SFF isn't necessarily as funny to me as it is to other people. Yet I always want to see more of it in the world.

I also believe that humorous stories should work as stories, even for someone who doesn't find them funny, and that doing some easy mockery of common tropes with a few silly names thrown in is not nearly enough. At the same time, I'm willing to excuse a few weaknesses in a story if it makes me laugh.

This collection runs the gamut, for me, from a few stories I felt didn't work especially well to a number of others that I enjoyed a good deal. I'll go through them one at a time, and give each one its own rating out of 10 and brief commentary. I'm well aware of how subjective humour is, and no doubt the stories which didn't work for me will be someone else's favourites, and vice versa.

7/10 "My Enemy, the Unicorn" (Bill Ferris): cryptids in captivity scheming among themselves and against each other. Twisty enough to be enjoyable for that reason, and also with a trickster protagonist, which is generally a plus for me.

6/10 "The Trouble With Hairy" (David Gerrold): exhibits a fault that I've seen a few times in comedic SFF, which is that it's almost entirely in "tell" mode. There's very little dialog, and while there are some named characters, we're told rather than shown what they do. The story itself, about a "solution" to LA's traffic woes, is absurd, but in mostly a good way, and enjoyably told; but "told" is exactly what it is, and that loses it some points.

7/10 "B.U.M.P. in the Knight" (Esther Friesner): Friesner is one of my favourite American SFF humourists. Her stories mostly play with the tropes, but she does it very well, and this is no exception; princesses and dragons scheme against knights, and come up with a clever solution to a pressing problem.

8/10 "If I Could Give This Time Machine Zero Stars, I Would" (James Wesley Rogers): simultaneously a clever time travel story and an effective parody of online consumer reviews. Either one of those elements could easily have failed (I've seen both done poorly), but in this story, neither one did.

5/10 "The Pi Files" (Laura Resnick): for me, Laura Resnick's pieces can tend to be a bit too much playing with tropes and silly names, and not quite enough fresh, effective story, and this is an example. Trying to cram the X-Files, Doctor Who, Star Wars, Star Trek, 2001, and, for some reason, Casablanca all into one story was probably too much, and left all of the elements underdeveloped. A bit reminiscent of Mad Magazine, because of the silly names, and I never did find that style funny.

8/10 "Prophet Margins" (Zach Shephard): this is an example of a story that works as a story first, and is secondarily funny, and none the worse for that. It's relatively fresh, with worldbuilding I hadn't seen before (different methods of predicting the future), and also charming. The terrible jokes that one of the characters tells are truly awful, but they're supposed to be.

7/10 "The Deliverable" (Shaenon K. Garrity): told in emails, this story parodies startup culture and the multiplication of coffee shops in the San Francisco Bay Area. Parodies of a current phenomenon can easily go sideways, as can the epistolary style, but this one is well executed, bringing out distinct characters who are both individuals and recognisable types, and telling an apocalyptic story in the process. Perhaps had one or two more characters than it strictly needed, because I found myself losing track of them at one point.

7/10 "The Mayoral Stakes" (Mike Resnick): a Runyonesque, one of my personal favourite story styles, with the same main character as the author's story in the Funny Fantasy anthology I reviewed not long ago. I didn't feel that this story was quite as good as that one, somehow; it perhaps would have benefited from a reduction in characters and a bit of streamlining in the first third, but it's still an enjoyable tale of betting on, and manipulating, New York mayoral elections.

6/10 "Rude Mechanicals" (Jody Lynn Nye): works both as a police-procedural murder mystery and an SF story involving aliens and AIs. However, I didn't find it outstandingly funny, and the style was somehow flat for me.

7/10 "Kaylee the Huntress" (Tim Pratt): the thoroughly dislikable protagonist (a spoiled "mean girl" type) lowers the mark I'm giving this one. It's a clever premise - she accidentally becomes a supernatural huntress and has to deal with the consequences - and well written, but I just disliked her so much. Which I was supposed to, but still.

5/10: "Best Chef Season Three: Tau Ceti E" (Caroline M. Yoachim): one kind of "funny" story I tend to dislike is one in which terrible things happen but the tone is kept light, never acknowledging the horror in the slightest. This is one such. That conflict between dark deeds and a light tone just isn't a thing I enjoy much. Other stories in this book have dark deeds, but manage to work for me because they give at least some acknowledgement to how people would really feel about them. The premise of a cooking reality show run by aliens is a fairly obvious one, too, and I didn't feel that the author took it anywhere truly creative.

8/10: "Won't You Please Give One of These Species-Planets a Second Chance?" (Nathan Hillstrom): an amusing mashup of two ideas, "powerful aliens rescue/threaten Earth" and "shelter pet adoption". The teenager who knows how to manipulate people into adopting pets is wonderful.

7/10: "Fantastic Coverage" (Mitchell Shanklin): something that "funny fantasy" anthologies tend to get a lot of is parodies of aspects, especially frustrating aspects, of contemporary life with a tropish science-fictional or fantastic overlay, and here we have an insurance claims agent whose job is to find loopholes and deny payouts in cases of fantastical disaster. It could easily be weak, but it's well executed and has a fun twist at the end.

7/10: "Mistaken Identity" (Daniel J. Davis): what it's like to be mistakenly targeted by a costumed vigilante. The comedy of errors for the hapless protagonist escalates amusingly.

7/10: "Customer Service Hobgoblin" (Paul R. Hardy): one of the commonest topics for funny fantasy stories is the supernatural helpline, and it's a story idea that is pretty well mined out by this point. Not completely, though, as this story proves, with its trickster protagonist and twisty plot.

6/10: "The Lesser of Two Evils" (Shane Halbach): likewise, the "IT is really magic/demons" idea must be close to getting its retirement gift, giant novelty card and generic congratulatory message from the CEO by now. This story doesn't take it in any startlingly new direction, though it's well enough executed.

7/10: "Appointment at Titlanitza" (Fred Stesney): noir detective with a Mexican setting and an ancient aliens theme. Some absurd moments amused me, which boosted the rating.

5/10: "The Problem with Poofs" (Gini Koch): to me, this stumbled, mostly because unnecessarily large numbers of characters were introduced in batches, meaning that by the time they did anything I'd forgotten which character went with which name. Also, I didn't find it especially funny. The title is an obvious reference to the Star Trek episode "The Trouble with Tribbles," - and, indeed, a lot of the story feels generically Trekkish - but the tribble-like poofs of the title are never actually a problem, only a solution. Otherwise, it's a fairly standard story of human exceptionalism among alien races (which are all unimaginatively based on Earth creatures), with not enough to the plot to rescue it from its other faults. A disappointing close to what was, on average, a good collection.

Disclosures: I received a review copy from the editor, who is an online acquaintance. I also submitted stories to this anthology, and previous UFO anthologies, unsuccessfully.

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Monday 25 July 2016

Review: Monstrous Little Voices: New Tales from Shakespeare's Fantasy World

Monstrous Little Voices: New Tales from Shakespeare's Fantasy World Monstrous Little Voices: New Tales from Shakespeare's Fantasy World by Jonathan Barnes
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I received a review copy of this book from one of the authors (Kate Heartfield), because we are members of the same writers' community.

Shakespeare can legitimately be considered one of the early English fantasists, based on A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Tempest, Macbeth, Hamlet, and bits and pieces in a few of the other plays, so the idea of a book which takes his fantastica and creates new stories appealed to me. It's been done before, of course, in various ways, and will be done again, with various degrees of success. This one distributes the story between several different authors, and I was keen to see how they handled it.

I assumed, going in, that it would be more or less a themed anthology, but it's more than that; the stories interlink and form an overall narrative. Unfortunately (in my opinion) it becomes more and more meta, literary, and, to me, pretentious as it goes along, until we're in second person present tense, breaking the fourth wall left and right in a full-on metafictional multiverse.

It doesn't start out that way, though. It starts out with Foz Meadows' "Coral Bones," which begins some time after The Tempest finishes and questions whether Miranda would really be happy with Ferdinand (who was, after all, basically the first man she ever met, if you don't count Caliban or her father). It's well written, well edited, and does a good job of building on the original story. It has an explicit five-act structure, and, of course, refers to several Shakespeare plays as source material (the fairies from A Midsummer Night's Dream play crucial roles; in this version of the setting, the faerie courts are openly known to the mortal world and interact with mortal courts), but that's as close to the plays as it gets. It's a short story, and a good one, which brings the themes bang up to date and doesn't try to be anything else.

Kate Heartfield is next, with "The Course of True Love". Here we have a witch, a faerie changeling, Duke Orsino (from Twelfth Night), and Queen Mab, as well as Titania and Oberon. It's becoming clear that the stories are linked, at least by sharing a setting. The main characters of this story don't recur later in the book, but it does advance the metaplot somewhat. It's a rather charming romance between older people, though for me it wrapped up a little too neatly. Again, it's presented in five acts, and again, it's well edited.

Emma Newman's "The Unkindest Cut" had a few minor faults. One was trying too hard to shoehorn in Shakespearian references; there were also a few places where words were used oddly, and the occasional comma splice. The story was strong, though, a tragedy of manipulation and murder in the clear spirit of Shakespeare (as well as involving several of his characters). Unlike the preceding stories and the one that follows, it isn't split up into five acts.

Adrian Tchaikovsky's "Even In the Cannon's Mouth" brings us characters from several other plays (As You Like It being one), caught up in the war that's been referenced also in the first three stories. Each scene opens with the kind of scene-setting that you get at the beginning of a Shakespearian scene, including the stage direction "Enter" and whichever character or characters start off the scene. The characters are vivid, their interaction well handled, and the writing rich and competent, but there's the occasional typo or slight homonym error ("bad" for "bade" twice, "institute" for "institution," "sheath" for "sheathe"). In Act Five, the fourth wall is broken, and we get our first taste of second person and our first indication of the metafictional multiverse. This is where, for me, the book started to go sideways.

Finally, we have Jonathan Barnes' "On the Twelfth Night," which has nothing really to do with the play Twelfth Night, but is set around the twelve days (or nights) of Christmas, 1601. It involves Shakespeare's family, and is (for the first eleven nights) told in second person, present tense, as if addressing Anne, Shakespeare's wife. I was unsurprised to learn, in the back matter, that Barnes writes for the Times Literary Supplement and the Literary Review and is a writer-in-residence at a university; the whole thing is very literary, in a way I personally don't care for much. It does remain spec-fic, in that the metafictional multiverse is at the heart of the story, though it goes through a lot of atmospheric setting-up to get there. It misuses the word "catechism" to mean "prayer," misplaces some commas, and uses "hove" as if it were the present tense (which should be "heave"), but otherwise reads smoothly enough.

As you may have detected, I enjoyed each story in the book slightly less than its predecessor, and if I was just going by the last one I'd consider three stars, though I'd probably settle on four; it's competently done, for the most part, though not the kind of thing I love. The standard starts out high, however, and the decline is gradual until we hit the final story. Speaking for myself, I would have preferred a sequence of stories like Foz Meadows' one, which didn't try too hard and just extrapolated and expanded on the source material in an entertaining and thought-provoking way, keeping firmly within the fiction. That's just my taste, though, and yours may well differ.

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Wednesday 20 July 2016

Review: Masterpieces of Fantasy and Wonder

Masterpieces of Fantasy and Wonder Masterpieces of Fantasy and Wonder by David G. Hartwell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I complained of this book's predecessor, Masterpieces of Fantasy and Enchantment, that some of the stories, far from being masterpieces, had been rescued from well-deserved obscurity. I didn't have the same reaction to this volume, though, even though the same editor had taken a similar approach: combine well-known genre classics with long-out-of-print pieces by famous authors, some of whom aren't usually thought of as belonging to the SFF field.

At the same time I bought those two books, I also bought The Fantasy Hall of Fame, and there's a considerable overlap in contents. This volume shares Margaret St. Clair's "The Man Who Sold Rope to the Gnolls," J.G. Ballard's "The Drowned Giant," and R.A. Lafferty's "Narrow Valley" with the Hall of Fame volume, none of which, to be honest, were among my favourites in either book; the Hall of Fame shares with the first volume "Our Fair City" (Heinlein), "The Silken-Swift" (Sturgeon), "The Detective of Dreams" (Wolfe), and "Operation Afreet" (Anderson).

I'd also previously read some others in this volume: Peter S. Beagle's "Lila the Werewolf," a typical Beagle piece in its beauty, its depiction of people trapped in their stereotypes, and its tragic arc; Anne McCaffrey's "A Proper Santa Claus," a powerful story about the crushing of childhood creativity and wonder; and James Tiptree, Jr.'s "Beyond the Dead Reef," which, slightly unusually for that author, focusses more on ecological disaster than on gender role disaster.

There are, however, plenty of pieces that are new to me, many of which I enjoyed. John M. Ford's "Green is the Color," which opens the book, is a lovely human story filled with magic and wonder. So is Robin McKinley's version of "The Princess and the Frog". Patricia A. McKillip's "The Harrowing of the Dragon of Hoarsbreath" is magnificent and unexpected, as you'd expect from her if you've read much of her work. John Brunner's "The Things That Are Gods" is a hearty bit of sword-and-sorcery with some depth to it. I also enjoyed Osbert Sitwell's version of "Jack and the Beanstalk," something that you'll not see reprinted in many places, I suspect.

Other pieces I wasn't so keen on. I've always disliked Jack Vance, whose characters use stilted dialog to convey their utter lack of any admirable qualities, and the samples in this book don't change my mind. Isaac Bashevis Singer's "The Parrot," as well as being not to my taste, had, I felt, limited claim to be in a book about "fantasy and wonder," since the fantastical element could well have been in the mind of one character. Although Graham Greene's "Under the Garden" has the same ambiguity about whether anything fantastical has actually occurred, I enjoyed it more as a story.

There are rescued treasures as well, though, from Charles Dickens ("Prince Bull," a political satire), W.S. Gilbert ("The Triumph of Vice"), J.M. Barrie (the original "Peter Pan" story, which I seem to somehow have never read, though I've read Peter Pan and Wendy many times), Mark Twain ("The Facts Concerning the Recent Carnival of Crime in Connecticut," a fine satire on the value of a conscience), Frank R. Stockton ("The Griffon and the Minor Canon," which I'd read in his own collection, though I suspect few other people have), George MacDonald ("The Gray Wolf," an early, and unusual, werewolf story), L. Frank Baum ("The Enchanted Buffalo," a blend of Western tall tale and native legend), E.T.A. Hoffmann ("The King's Bride," a quirky wonder story), Fitz-James O'Brien ("The King of Nodland and His Dwarf," another political satire with a strong anti-slavery message, by an author who died in the American Civil War), and William Morris ("The Hollow Land," a pseudomedieval tale so authentic that I felt I needed scholarly notes to explain it to me).

In the first book, I felt that the editor had compiled an odd mix of often-collected 20th-century SFF stories with deservedly obscure earlier works, and that it didn't really come together into an interesting collection. Here, I felt he was much more successful, and that the stories were better chosen.

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Monday 18 July 2016

Review: Hunt for Valamon

Hunt for Valamon Hunt for Valamon by D.K. Mok
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I became aware of D.K. Mok's work when we both had stories in the Terry Pratchett tribute anthology In Memory: A Tribute to Sir Terry Pratchett . I enjoyed her story in that book, and bought this book in consequence.

It reminds me, in many ways, of a Terry Pratchett story. We have not one, but two earnest, rather hapless young men with burning ideals about how the world should be, who struggle and sacrifice and are willing to pay any price to make it that way, because they care very deeply. We have several capable, no-nonsense young women who eventually come round to the young men's way of thinking, and provide necessary ingredients of the solution. We have some dark moments, but also some very funny moments, mostly either "hapless young man is hapless" or else clever play with language. The plot is exciting, suspenseful, and far from predictable. Every so often we have a beautifully phrased philosophical statement like "People only knew what they wanted, not what was important. That's why things didn't work." The editing is excellent, and I don't say that often or lightly.

There is one way in which I felt the book could have been improved, and it's an issue that this kind of book is vulnerable to. There are a lot of fairly generic minor characters, and I had trouble, when one showed up again after an interval, remembering who they were or anything else about them. The main characters were OK; we saw enough of them, and they had enough things that they wanted and enough distinctive attributes, that they were easy to remember and tell apart. The minor characters, though, needed to stand out from the background a bit more clearly, even if it was just through a couple of initial descriptive tags that could be mentioned again when they reappeared (the Roger Zelazny method).

Apart from that, I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and will be looking out for more from D.K. Mok.

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Monday 4 July 2016

Review: Penric and the Shaman

Penric and the Shaman Penric and the Shaman by Lois McMaster Bujold
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoyed this novella, as I did the previous one, though in both cases I wished there was more. The plot is quite linear, without as many complications or as much protagonist agency as is often the case with Bujold's best work. Compensating somewhat, the characters are well developed; in fact, the development of the three viewpoint characters is what primarily happens in the book.

The three are also very different: a middle-aged man who is basically a policeman, a young sorcerer/divine, and a young shaman who has made a terrible mistake and doesn't see his way clear to fixing it until the other young man comes along.

Other reviewers have regretted the lesser role of Desdemona, the sorcerer's demon, in this book, and I understand why; she's amusing, especially when she's in conflict with her sorcerer. However, the first book set up that relationship, and now the second one is building on that as a given and taking the character of Penric, the sorcerer, forward.

Penric has a lot of wisdom for a young man, and it seems that part of the reason he has come to be so good-natured and accepting is his own unusual situation. He's admirable, and enjoyable to read. It's nice to see a wise, kind character in a genre where the characters are often given to stupid decisions and, sometimes, cruel and selfish ones.

I hope for some more in this series.

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Tuesday 21 June 2016

Review: The Fantasy Hall of Fame

The Fantasy Hall of Fame The Fantasy Hall of Fame by Robert Silverberg
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It's inevitable with any anthology that I'll like some stories more than others, and in most cases I end up not liking some at all. I shouldn't have been surprised that this was still true even of an anthology that wasn't chosen by a single editor, but by vote of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America membership (as at about 1992, when the "and Fantasy" part was added to the organisation's title).

There are 30 stories. The rules limited each author to being represented by only one story, whichever one of theirs received the most votes, although in several cases there were multiple stories by the same author nominated. They're presented in chronological order, from 1939 (when Unknown magazine was founded as a venue for fantasy as we now know it) to 1990. Inevitably, most are famous classics in the field, and in many cases I've read them in other collections, but it's good to have them all in one place.

**** "Trouble With Water," H.L. Gold: as the editor notes, Campbell's Unknown published stories that - like the SF stories appearing in his better-known magazine Astounding - rigorously worked out the consequences of a single difference in the world, but chose a magical difference instead of a scientific difference. In this story, the protagonist is cursed by a water gnome to be unable to do anything with water (wash, drink, or touch). The characters are all stereotypes, mostly Jewish apart from the Irish cop, but they're affectionate stereotypes, and manage to have some dimension to them. It's amusing.

**** "Nothing In the Rules," L. Sprague de Camp: here, it's a mermaid in a swimming competition. It's a decent story, with comedy, drama and a touch of frustrated romance.

** "Fruit of Knowledge," C.L. Moore: I'm a big Moore fan, but I couldn't finish this story based on the Garden of Eden and the character Lilith from Jewish mythology. I found it heavy going, tedious even. Surely there's a better Moore story than this that could have been included; one of the Jirel of Joiry tales, for example. Though there was a hard limit of 17,500 words, and perhaps those stories are longer.

** "Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius," Jorge Luis Borges: I didn't finish this one either. It's about a fictional encyclopaedia that somehow becomes factual, but a lot of it is just infodump of the contents of the encyclopaedia, and it didn't keep my interest.

**** "The Compleat Werewolf," Anthony Boucher: a story from 1942 filled with humour and romance and action, it stands up well more than 70 years later.

"The Small Assassin," Ray Bradbury: I skipped this one, because although I admire Bradbury as a writer, I'm not actually much of a fan of his stories, if that makes any sense at all. I glanced at enough of it to decide that it was more or less horror, and I wasn't in the mood.

"The Lottery," Shirley Jackson: I skipped this one too, having read it before and not particularly wanting to read it again. It's a brilliant story, but dark.

**** "Our Fair City," Robert A. Heinlein: I'd just recently read this in another collection, and while I enjoyed it, I didn't want to read it again so soon. Humour, corrupt politicians, the citizens standing up against them, all good stuff.

**** "There Shall Be No Darkness," James Blish: another werewolf story, which I didn't feel belonged in this collection. The mood is horror, and the in-world explanation is SF; where's the fantasy? It's a decent enough story, though.

** "The Loom of Darkness," Jack Vance: I'm no fan of Vance's overwrought prose and distant, unemotional and unlikeable characters, so I didn't enjoy this particularly. Sword and sorcery, a rogue, but not a loveable one.

**** "The Man Who Sold Rope to the Gnolls," Margaret St Clair: again, more horror than fantasy, to me, but a good story that sustains a mocking, almost light tone against very dark events.

***** "The Silken-Swift," Theodore Sturgeon: I'd read this recently in the same collection as the Heinlein, so I didn't reread it, though it's an excellent story, emotionally powerful and beautifully written.

**** "The Golem," Avram Davidson: another Jewish author playing with Jewish stereotypes in a warm and affectionate way. The mundanity of the elderly couple plays against what I'm tempted to call the attempted darkness of the 'golem' - which is technological rather than magical, so this is, again, arguably SF, not fantasy.

**** "Operation Afreet," Poul Anderson: recently read in the other collection, not reread, and another werewolf story (making three werewolves in this volume). Again, too, humour and romance and action, and a well-written piece.

**** "That Hell-Bound Train," Robert Bloch: a deal-with-the-devil story, another common fantasy trope, particularly well executed by this master of the creepy, and closely approaching horror.

**** "The Bazaar of the Bizarre," Fritz Lieber: although I find the Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser stories, of which this is one, darker and grittier than I usually prefer, I still enjoy them because they're so well done and so atmospheric. Lieber was excellent at evoking the strange and sinister in a sword & sorcery setting, and that ability is on full display here.

**** "Come Lady Death," Peter S. Beagle: I've just read Beagle's latest novel, and it's interesting to compare it to this story from more than 50 years ago, early in his career. The story is much more mannered, with strong hints of literary descent from Poe's "Masque of the Red Death," but it's still powerful, and worthy of its inclusion here.

*** "The Drowned Giant," J.G. Ballard: a style of fantasy I don't have much time for, in which the fantastic enters the mundane world and is treated mundanely. Also a 'story' which is a description of a series of observations, not plotted, and on the whole I prefer even short stories to have a plot unless they're spectacular in some other way. This isn't.

*** "Narrow Valley," R.A. Lafferty: I'm not sure why this is the Lafferty story that always gets collected. He wrote others, I'm sure, just as good. But it's a quintessential Lafferty story: surreal characters and events, perhaps a bit flat, amusing in an offbeat way.

*** "Faith of Our Fathers," Philip K. Dick: like basically every Dick story ever, it's about what is real, and the untrustworthiness of perception and consciousness. The setting, in a world taken over by the Communist powers, is interesting, but I'm afraid I'm just not a big fan of this author's work. (Originally appeared in Harlan Ellison's Dangerous Visions anthology.)

**** "The Ghost of a Model T," Clifford D. Simak: a beautiful example of a story without much in the way of a plot, that's more about a character's realisations - and, in this case, memories and perspective on life - than any events or struggle, but nevertheless works. Simak evokes the setting so extremely well that a plot isn't really necessary.

**** "The Demoness," Tanith Lee: I'm not a particular fan of Lee's dark, sex-soaked stories, but she does them well, and this is a classic example of one. It did leave me with sympathy for the title character, which was quite an achievement, all things considered, so she gets a fourth star.

***** "Jeffty is Five," Harlan Ellison: a fine story, which I'd read before recently enough that I didn't reread it. Very human and moving.

*** "The Detective of Dreams," Gene Wolfe: I can hardly cavil at this being the story that represents Wolfe, since it's the only one of his I feel I mostly understand, and even sort of like a bit. What surprises me is that, apparently, a lot of other people like it too, despite its overt religious message. The 19th-century voice is beautifully and expertly done, though.

**** "Unicorn Variations," Roger Zelazny: I'm a huge Zelazny fan, though more of his novels than his short stories - not that his short stories aren't good, but the longer works give me more time to sink into his powerfully imaginative settings. This one isn't, maybe, as imaginative a setting as some, but the story of a chess game for high stakes is enjoyable, and the touches of whimsy are classic Zelazny.

*** "Basileus," Robert Silverberg: another author whose craft I appreciate but whose actual stories are not my favourites; there's something dark and cynical and alienated at the heart of them that puts me off. This tale of a programmer who fills his computer with angels is no exception.

**** "The Jaguar Hunter," Lucius Shepard: I haven't read a lot of Shepard, but this is an impressive story, with a lot of depth to it. It uses a South American setting to compare and contrast Western consumerism with the older ways, more in tune with nature, but also more violent and savage.

*** "Buffalo Gals, Won't You Come Out Tonight," Ursula K. Le Guin: I am a Le Guin fan, but more of some of her other work than of this. It's beautifully done, and incorporates rich material from Native American legend, but sometimes her stories lack story, to their detriment - at least in my eyes - and this is one of those.

*** "Bears Discover Fire," Terry Bisson: much awarded and frequently collected, but I've never quite seen what the fuss was about. Another more-or-less plotless story; a series of events happen, but for me they don't cohere together into an effective whole. I'm probably missing something.

**** "Tower of Babylon," Ted Chiang: with this story we are, in a sense, back at the beginning, because, like the stories in Campbell's Unknown magazine, it's a rigorously worked out exploration of a fantastical speculation, in this case about the structure of the universe (what if it was as some ancient civilisations believed?) The main character is somewhat flat, and largely there as an observer, but the working out of the premise is well enough done that I enjoyed it.

I don't know if there's an overall conclusion to be drawn from such a diverse collection stretching over more than 50 years. Early 90s SFF writers liked funny, action-packed werewolf stories? Stories can work without a plot if you do something else amazing? Rich description is a big help, but isn't essential? SF and horror stories sometimes get called fantasy? There's no one common factor in great fantasy stories? All of those seem to be true.

For me, some of these were amazing, others disappointing, but on average, they were fine, enjoyable pieces showcasing the considerable talents of their authors.

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Monday 20 June 2016

Review: Summerlong

Summerlong Summerlong by Peter S. Beagle
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'm coming to this book as a "genre" fan, and Beagle really isn't a genre author, not in a traditional way. He's more of a literary author who uses genre elements - even though, unlike some other authors who do the same, he's been warmly embraced by the genre crowd. (I suspect it has more to do with which conferences you go to and which other authors you hang out with than anything in the work itself.)

Accordingly, the structure and the pacing and the way the book develops and resolves, or, in some ways, doesn't resolve, are not what I'm used to as a genre reader, and this made for a sometimes uncomfortable reading experience for me. This, really, is why I've given it four stars instead of five. It's excellently done, speaking objectively; but, speaking subjectively, what it is isn't a thing I completely love, and in part that's because I don't usually read this kind of book. (And, in much larger part, I don't usually read this kind of book because I don't completely love things like this.)

First, the pacing. The best metaphor I can offer is that Beagle builds the picture out of a great many small brushstrokes, and this takes time. It's not a fast-paced book; it's not meant to be. It's a book about the characters and how they change and develop and interact, and it's much more about how they respond to events than how they affect events, and the events themselves are mostly, especially at first, mundane and low-key.

I'm definitely not saying that I was bored. I did feel the slowness of the pace, but recognised what the author was doing and appreciated how well he did it. People who are looking for an action-oriented book will be disappointed, though.

So what about the structure and development and resolution? It isn't tidy. It isn't neat. It doesn't answer all the questions, restore the status quo, defeat the villain (since there really isn't one; even though there's a candidate, it's pretty clearly shown that he's unqualified for the position), or, in most ways, leave the characters better off than when they started. In other ways, though, it does leave them deeper, more open to experience, broader, and fuller than when they started, even if the blessing is extremely mixed.

There's a powerful vein of symbolism running through the story, as you'd expect; it's about the mundane meeting the mythic and being partly (and troublingly, and painfully, and in unexpected ways) transformed, though most of the key changes are not, in themselves, supernatural. Meeting the mythic enables the transformations to take place, but they were always inherent and potential in the characters. They just needed to be unlocked by the right experiences.

Among those experiences, at the hinge point of the book, is a terrible decision by one of the main characters. It's a decision that I thought might be implied by the starting situation; that, as I came to know the characters better, I began to think would not occur; and that I was troubled to see occur, because it seemed like a stereotype, and because it was a really bad idea, and because it's stereotypical because it happens all too often in real life, and because it seemed inadequately motivated given what there was to lose, and because I wished the character (and the other party to the decision) had chosen otherwise. And out of this decision comes messiness and no good resolution, which is where the realism comes in.

What Beagle does so powerfully in all his stories is to show the mythic meeting the realistic - the "realistic" in the form of beautifully rendered stereotypes raised almost to the level of archetypes, like the crotchety retired Jewish professor and the middle-aged Sicilian flight attendant who are central to this book. This is, I think, something literary fiction often does - showing people trapped in their stereotypes and struggling against them in vain - but in Beagle, at least, sometimes they encounter the mythic, enabling them to partially emerge from that struggle and develop in unexpected ways, while still being dragged down by the weight of reality. That's certainly the case here.

I don't know that I would say I liked the book. I certainly didn't love it. But I do admire it as a piece of art.

I received a review copy via Netgalley.

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