Sunday 31 December 2017

My Top 17 Books for 2017

It's time for my annual retrospective post on the best books I read in the previous year. Earlier instalments are here: my top 16 books for 2016 (actually only 15, I now realise), my top 15 books for 2015, and my top 14 books for 2014.

My total numbers are up a little from last year, with 85 books read instead of the 77 I read in 2016. Here are my figures in a table:

5 star 4 star 3 star 2 star Total
2017 10 56 19 0 85
2016 11 53 12 1 77
2015 11 68 19 2 101
2014 9 70 23 2 104

Once again, the bulk of the books I read get 4 stars, meaning I enjoyed them and they were well done, but they weren't so well done or so enjoyable that they deserved a fifth star. Three-star books I didn't dislike, but they were either significantly lacking in their execution or failed to enthuse me; a two-star book, for me, is pretty much a failure, neither well executed nor enjoyable, though showing some hint of potential that lifts it above one star. I didn't read any of those this year. I don't finish books I think are going to be one (or two) stars, and I don't rate books I don't finish.

I did give a couple of books three stars that I considered only giving two. I'll single out one of them, because of its win in the Science Fiction category of the Goodreads Choice awards: Andy Weir's Artemis (link is to my full review). I'm awarding this my Most Disappointing Book of 2017 special non-prize (which, of course, totally cancels out the Goodreads Choice win, right?)

I suspect that many of the people who voted for it don't read a lot of new SF, like Andy Weir himself; if you're looking for a pretty straight-up Heinlein homage, and can ignore the enormous plot hole at the end, it is amusing and clever in places, but as a piece of SF written in 2017 it failed for me at multiple levels. I won't be surprised if it gets on a certain group's slate for the next Hugos (if there is a slate this year), since it's sufficiently old-fashioned, sexist, and non-literary to appeal to their claque/clique. They'll probably forgive the fact that the protagonist is supposedly a Saudi woman, because her being Saudi makes no visible difference, and her being a woman is played entirely for the male gaze.

Anyway: this year's countdown. Links are to my Goodreads reviews. Superheroes, unusual detectives, genre mashups, determined young female protagonists, and refreshed tropes abound in this year's crop.

I'd like to start with a few honorable mentions. These were strong books that might well have made the top 17, but just had one thing that caused them to miss out. In no particular order:

The Thorn of Dentonhill, Marshall Ryan Maresca: if Batman were a magic student in a sword-and-sorcery city. Well-maintained tension, but let down by the copy editing (shame, Penguin, shame).

The Native Star, M.K. Hobson. Gaslight fantasy, strongly and competently plotted, though I thought the romance subplot was subpar.

Necrospect, J.B. Markes. A promising start to a series, with a necromancer detective and his determined young assistant. Reads as if English isn't the author's first language, though his biography suggests otherwise.

The Uploaded, Ferrett Steinmetz. A dystopian that I actually liked, which is a miraculous feat of writing; nothing wrong with it whatsoever, except that I passionately despise the genre, and even doing it extremely well wasn't enough to completely make up for that.

The Summoned Mage, Melissa McShane. Capable writing and excellent editing yielded an entertaining book, but it didn't quite have the depth to rise to five stars, and the diary conceit made the pacing uneven.

And now, the best of the 4-star books, the seven that almost made it across that 5-star threshold.

17. Weave a Circle Round, Kari Maaren. An engaging YA magical/mythical/time-travel story bursting with eccentric, complex characters.

16. Kalanon's Rising, Darian Smith. An ex-warrior physician/detective in a sword-and-sorcery city, with a twisty plot that ended up surprising me.

15. An Alchemy of Masks and Mirrors, Curtis Craddock. Skyships ply between floating continents and islands, and a determined, intelligent young woman sets out to bring a seemingly impossible peace.

14. Flotsam, R.J. Theodore. Another skyships-and-floating-islands book, with a crew of daring adventurers desperately opposing an alien invasion while dealing with their own considerable issues.

13. Abounding Might, Melissa McShane. An earlier book in the same series made last year's list, which makes me want to pick up the remaining one. Napoleonic military supers meet Regency romance, and kick its butt. In a good way.

12. Superhero Syndrome, Caryn Larrinaga. A fresh take on (modern-era) supers, with a determined protagonist battling crime and corruption with creativity and verve.

11. The Beautiful Ones, Silvia Moreno-Garcia. A glorious and well-earned ending caps this insightful, beautifully written, and moving book.

And now the top 10, all of them winning five stars. It was a tough fight here; there's not a lot to pick between most of them, especially the top five. On another day I might put them in a different order.

10. Uprooted, Naomi Novik. Full of spectacular magic, conflicts of moral purpose and personal connection, and complex and nuanced relationships.

9. All Those Explosions Were Someone Else's Fault, James Alan Garner. Another fresh take on the supers genre (with plenty of urban fantasy on the side), this offers a thrill-ride of tension and cool set-pieces that actually mean something, cleverly told in an appealing voice.

8. The Flaw in All Magic, Ben S. Dobson. Magicpunk in a secondary-world setting. With a great dynamic between the main characters, it manages to combine depth of characterisation and relentless action in an excellently crafted book.

7. The Wrong Stars, Tim Pratt. Refreshes the space opera genre with a dash of Mythos, and combines sparkling banter among a strong ensemble cast with fun, adventure, and a subtle meditation on the consequences of abuse.

6. Shadows of Self, Brandon Sanderson. Supers and slightly steampunked Western collide, injure each other physically and emotionally, make a wisecrack, and spring an astonishing twist, in a book of many well-crafted dimensions.

5. Heirs of Grace, Tim Pratt. Refreshes the tired urban fantasy/paranormal romance genre with a sensible, empathetic protagonist, and offers a terrific conclusion to a capable tale told with wit and originality.

4. The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, Patricia E. McKillip. Complex, mythopoeic, epic without needing an (on-stage) battle, and anchored in the depths of human psychology, this classic offers appealing wisdom and a magnificent ending.

3. Kismet, Watts Martin. The book you should read if you think that a novel about queer furries can't also be a well-executed, entertaining space opera with masterfully escalating stakes. It makes the political both personal and essential to the plot.

2. Dreadnaught, April Daniels. The book you should read if you think that a novel about a trans teenager can't also be a well-executed, exciting supers story with deep characterisation and a tense plot. Emotionally true and deep. 

1. The Philosopher's Flight, Tom Miller. The book you should read if you don't think a man with an MFA can write about a man trying to make his way in a world where women have more magic without making it cringeworthy and awful. World War I-era, more-or-less supers, but in a more realistic scenario where they serve mostly in transport, communications, rescue, and civil defence roles; I found the main character instantly appealing, and was often moved by his struggles, losses, and triumphs. (Note: won't be published until February 2018; I received an advance copy for review.)

Gender Breakdown

Out of interest, here's the author gender breakdown for my top lists over the past four years. I tend to read about 50:50 men and women, taken over the long term, without setting out specifically to do so (I had to look up the genders of several of this year's authors to calculate the table, which I've based on the information in their Goodreads profiles). My top lists do tend to feature more women than men, though, apparently.

Out of the 17 books on this year's list, 15 feature a determined young female protagonist (counting secondary protagonists in Shadows of Self, The Beautiful OnesThe Philosopher's Flight and The Flaw in All Magic); of the remaining two, Forgotten Beasts of Eld features a determined middle-aged female protagonist, and Kalanon's Rising has a couple of secondary female characters who hold their own very effectively. Of the honorable mentions, The Thorn of Dentonhill underutilises its sole female character, but even she is capable and competent; the rest have either female primary protagonists or (in the case of Uploaded) capable secondary female characters who make a strong impact on the plot. Heck, even Artemis has a female protagonist, though she's unconvincing and handled poorly.

Note that I messed up last year and actually only posted a top 15, not a top 16 as I'd intended.

M F Total
2017 8 9 17
2016 6 9 15
2015 10 5 15
2014 4 10 14
Total 29 33 62

I look forward to lots more good reading in 2018. Thanks to Netgalley, through which I received many of these books for review.

Thursday 21 December 2017

Review: The Flaw in All Magic

The Flaw in All Magic The Flaw in All Magic by Ben S. Dobson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I think I found this by looking through the steampunk category on Amazon. It's more magepunk than steampunk, with magically driven engines and an airship lifted partly by spells; a steampunkish/dieselpunkish feel to the setting, but with lots of magic-as-technology and an assortment of fantasy races (elves, dwarves, gnomes, orcs, goblins, and so forth).

Because this is pretty close to what I often write myself, I read it with great interest. Because it's extremely well done, I also read it with great enjoyment.

The protagonist is a man without magical ability who was able to fool the magical university authorities for several years using a combination of sleight-of-hand and bluff, culminating in a dissertation which revealed his deception, and argued that only someone without magic could really understand it, because the flaw in all magic is the mage. Mages, being human(oid), are subject to error, and egotistical blindness to their own errors. (I was reminded of the flaws in computer programs introduced by programmers.) He's a rogue, but an ethical one, a little bit obsessive, and courageous when he needs to be.

His sidekick is a half-orc who has come to the island where magic is still freely practiced because she wants to see amazing sights. Her sense of awe and wonder is a beautifully handled part of her character, and asserts itself even when she's in great peril. She's a good-natured character, contrary to orc stereotypes, and despite the fact that she's experienced prejudice her whole life (her orcish relatives see her as too human, and everyone else sees her as too orcish). I enjoyed the fact that she was the muscle in the pair. It's a simple, even a common, trope-switch to make the woman the physically dangerous one, but the main character's easy acceptance of it without any discussion gained the book extra points with me.

Both characters are terrific, with enough backstory to feel real and sympathetic, introduced (like the worldbuilding) just when it's needed, and just as much as it's needed for the reader's understanding. Their collegial relationship is a joy to see, particularly since there's no attraction between them, but there is respect.

The plot is a mystery/thriller, with a locked-room murder (of someone who mattered to the protagonist); politics (including echoes of current real-world politics of the arrogant, regressive far-right sort); fights, pursuits, and edge-of-the-seat physical danger; and roguish cleverness. The pacing, I felt, was a good balance between keeping things constantly moving and not failing to pause for reflection.

On top of excellent editing, this all-around facility with the craft of writing helped push this into 5-star territory for me, and made this one of my favourite books this year. I'm very glad to have discovered another author who I can trust to tell a good story well.

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Thursday 14 December 2017

Review: Wish

Wish Wish by D. L. Lewis
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The author is clearly in love with the semicolon, which is a wonderful punctuation mark. Unfortunately, almost all the cases in which she uses it should actually be commas.

The prose is otherwise competent, but stiff and formal, and the minor characters mostly consist of a single quirk - and often seem to be there only so that a more important character has someone to talk to.

The resolution seems hurried, and even lampshades the fact. It's therefore shorter than I was expecting.

It's far from being a bad book, but it has plenty of room for improvement.

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Wednesday 13 December 2017

Review: The Continuum

The Continuum The Continuum by Wendy Nikel
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Disclaimers: Wendy Nikel and I are both members of the same writers' forum, but as far as I can remember we haven't interacted directly. I received a copy via Netgalley for review.

As I would expect, this is a well-crafted, competently-written book. Unfortunately, I felt it was lacking that extra spark that would take it from competence to excellence. The problem may have been that it was too short, with the character arcs and plot arcs resolving too quickly at the end, without enough middle in which they could be earned. Or it may have been that I somehow didn't find the characters' dilemmas visceral and compelling enough, or that the villains were a touch cartoonish, or that the relationships between characters were underdeveloped.

The time travel aspect is well handled, with a surprise ending (which could have had a bit more groundwork laid for it). However, I didn't fully believe that a man from 1912 could understand the workings of, and improve, a miniaturized electronic device, and since this was central to the plot that was a problem.

Enjoyable, and in places textbook (the escalation of the stakes, for example), but missing something vital to make it compelling for me.

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Wednesday 6 December 2017

Review: Infomocracy

Infomocracy Infomocracy by Malka Ann Older
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I had vaguely heard good things about Infomocracy, so I waited for it to be on sale and picked it up. Frankly, I was disappointed.

For me, it combined a thing I dislike about cyberpunk (disconnected and more-or-less alienated characters) with a thing I dislike about hard SF (a story that has to fight its continual tendency to be exposition about the setting rather than a human drama). The result was a novel that, while well executed, was something I was never going to love.

I also didn't manage to fully suspend my disbelief. Firstly, we are shown a setting in which "microdemocracy" has taken hold over most of the world, and governments are elected for "centenals," units of 100,000 people - so two neighboring parts of the same city can be under completely different governments, each of which also governs people in geographically distant parts of the world. (They're referred to as "governments" rather than "parties," which I suppose is defensible, but the government that wins the most centenals also has some central pseudo-federal powers and responsibilities, and is referred to as having the "supermajority". Clearly it doesn't have an actual supermajority, though, since there are five governments in close contention for that honour, and it's mathematically impossible for five different groups to be within striking distance of a percentage significantly greater than 50% - which is what "supermajority" means in the dictionary. "Plurality" would have been a better term.)

The thing I didn't believe about microdemocracy was that it had been adopted at all - a given for the setup of the novel, which is about the third election under the microdemocracy system. I simply wasn't shown enough history to believe it, particularly since it doesn't, on the face of it, seem especially practical.

Other backstory, however, I was given in quantity. There's an inevitable amount of infodumping in a story like this, and it wasn't handled terribly, but it still clogged the action.

The main thing I didn't believe, though, was all the single people with no kids. One character has children (no partner), but the children are a lightly sketched inconvenience rather than real people. Everyone else appears to be single and childless, even the senior people.

Now, I work in tech, and my experience is that people's families are very important to them (their parents and siblings as well as their partners and children). Even if they're not important to the story, as such, they should at least seem to exist. I realise that in startup culture, there are a lot of single, disconnected people with not much going on outside work, but Information, the organisation in which most of the novel takes place, isn't a startup. It's a tech bureaucracy.

I also didn't believe the instant attraction-leading-to-relationship between two of the characters, or the way they met by chance after we'd already been following both of them separately.

I didn't believe the crisis, which brought down Information (or very specific aspects of it). It seemed technologically implausible.

And finally, I didn't believe (in light of recent elections and referenda) the ending, in which rationality carries the day. In fact, I didn't really believe that the various microdemocratic governments permitted Information to exist and to act as a combination of Google and Politifact, annotating their inaccurate claims for people.

Characters with too few dimensions and too few relationships (and the main one implausible), and some sociological and technological unlikelinesses that were inadequately sold to me, combined with too much exposition to place this at three stars for me.

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