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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