Sunday 29 July 2018

Review: Heroine Complex

Heroine Complex Heroine Complex by Sarah Kuhn
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've been waiting to read this for a while; I read the preview and decided that it was good enough that I wanted to read it, but not so amazingly good that I would pay the publisher's inflated price. I put it on my Await Ebook Price Drop wishlist, and eventually the price dropped into a more reasonable range and I picked it up.

I enjoy supers novels, when they're well done, and this is. It gets my "well-edited" tag; only a couple of minor typos that I noticed. It does get a content warning for lots and lots of swearing and quite a bit of (non-explicit) sex.

It's full of people with dysfunctional relationships. Normally, this would put me off, but when they're mostly self-aware about their dysfunction, and trying to deal with it, and at least partially succeeding, and quipping amusingly while doing so, it works. It helps, too, that the various dysfunctions are different from each other; though there are a lot of parent issues, they range from High Expectations Asian Parents Disapprove of My Career, through Self-Absorbed Dad Abandoned Us After Mom Died, to My Mother is Literally an Evil Psycho, to My Elder Sister is Raising Me Because of Aforementioned Self-Absorbed Dad/Dead Mom and I Have Teen Angst. There are also intimacy issues, and the kind of issues you get when your best friend is more popular than you are and you always feel like the sidekick, and the kind of issues you get when you take over from your more popular best friend and she resents it. And all of these are explored with multiple characters, which is clever.

The superhero action (against demons from another dimension) is fun, the banter witty, the plot and characters well handled.

The one weak spot for me was the interpolated blog posts from the Bitchy Mean Girl, which I felt were a bit clumsy in their snark. Everything else, though, worked, and I will look for the sequels.

Not at full price, though.

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Review: City of Broken Magic

City of Broken Magic City of Broken Magic by Mirah Bolender
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book features a determined young woman making her way in a dangerous profession - one of a bare few underresourced people fighting monsters, the existence of which the city is determined to officially deny.

That's an excellent start, and it progresses with plenty of excitement and action, and some degree of personal and interpersonal growth.

The setting was a bit lightly done; in particular, I always have a problem with an isolated island (especially one, as here, consisting of isolated cities which it's dangerous to travel between) developing high technology. That's something that arises more naturally in a continental setting where there's a lot of exchange of ideas and mobility among the population.

I read a pre-publication copy, and my enjoyment was markedly reduced by the author's lack of apparent acquaintance with the past perfect tense. A lot of authors today, when narrating in past tense, fail to go into past perfect to signal that they are talking about an event in the earlier past, which is disorienting and annoying. I hope, but don't necessarily expect, that this will be fixed by the time of publication; there are a lot of instances of it, which generally means that even a good copy editor will miss some.

Setting this aside, I found it good, though not great; a touch more depth to the characters and some more thought given to the setting would have helped.

I received a copy via Netgalley for purposes of review.

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Review: Foundryside

Foundryside Foundryside by Robert Jackson Bennett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I don't normally go for books which centre around characters in desperate, grinding poverty, oppressed by an uncaring and dystopian system. This is such a book, and yet, because it gave me a motivated character in a dynamic situation right out of the gate, it hooked me in and kept me reading.

It helped that the main character is a highly capable and determined young woman (my favourite type of character); she's a thief who can detect "scrived" (magical) devices and interact with them, because of a nasty experiment performed on her years before. When she gets hold of an ancient artefact that mysterious parties will do violence to obtain, she finds herself in the middle of conflicts that will leave everything changed, both around her and within her.

It's a strong concept, and it's well executed. The supporting characters are varied, with their hearts in the right place; the villains are suitably megalomaniacal and ruthless. There's amusing banter.

There's also a good deal of swearing, some, but by no means all, euphemistic, and some of it hinting at a religion that otherwise is conspicuous by its absence.

Overall, though, a fresh magical concept, complex and active characters, and a well-paced plot make this a compelling start to a series I will be watching closely.

I received a copy via Netgalley for purposes of review.

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Wednesday 25 July 2018

Review: Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen

Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen by Lois McMaster Bujold
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A number of questions arose for me while I was reading this book.

Questions like: if the original author retcons her own characters, is it still fanfiction?

Was that retcon really necessary?

Where's the suspense?

It's a Lois McMaster Bujold book, so it contains wry wit, trenchant observations, and moments of poignancy.

But it's a recent Lois McMaster Bujold book, so it doesn't stand up well beside her best work. The stakes are personal, rather than being planetary or greater; the pace is sometimes slow, and the characters' actions are often mundane; it's not at all tightly plotted. One of the plot threads with the most sustained tension is the fate of some building materials, and the resolution for that is a deus ex machina that doesn't even fully resolve the issue.

There are sparkling moments, but on a spectrum of the author's books with Paladin of Souls and A Civil Campaign (two of my favourite books by anyone, let alone LMB) at one end, this is definitely at the other.

I also wasn't personally a fan of the bisexual, polyamorous retcon of Aral and Cordelia's relationship (that's not a spoiler, as it's revealed in the first chapter or two); it felt very fanfictiony. The love story that takes place in the book itself wasn't bad, though it wasn't amazing.

All in all, definitely one for completists only, particularly in view of the many callbacks to earlier (and, IMO, better) books in the series.

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Sunday 1 July 2018

Review: Winterfair Gifts

Winterfair Gifts Winterfair Gifts by Lois McMaster Bujold
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I listened to the audio version of this novella, capably read by Grover Gardner, who also reads the Penric novellas by the same author.

It's an enjoyable side story in the Vorkosigan Saga, involving two minor characters from other books, Armsman Roic and Sergeant Taura. Roic, a provincial Barrayaran, has to overcome several of his prejudices when he meets the genetically modified super-soldier Taura. Together, they fight crime. (No, seriously, they do.)

While the short length doesn't allow for the complexity and depth of some of the novels in the series, it's witty, moving, and exciting, sometimes in the same scene. Its plot manages to combine both a mystery and a romance, two classic plot structures that Bujold makes work well together.

Worth picking up if you are a fan of the series; if you're not, a lot of the references will go over your head, and you're likely to enjoy it a lot less.

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Review: Glass and Gardens: Solarpunk Summers

Glass and Gardens: Solarpunk Summers Glass and Gardens: Solarpunk Summers by Sarena Ulibarri
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I picked this up primarily because of one of the authors, D.K. Mok, with whom I was in another anthology a couple of years back. I enjoyed her story in that collection, and also her novel, and expected that I'd enjoy this (which I did). Two of the other contributors are members of a writers' forum I participate in.

Like most anthologies, it turned out to be a mixed bag, though I liked most of the stories. The stories show a strong editorial hand in their selection, mostly being quite similar in tone and feel, though diverse in other respects.

I could wish that the copy editing had been as strong. Letters in the desert are referred to as "an acre tall'; an acre is a measure of area, not length. There are hyphens where they don't belong, and some missing where they do belong. There are common homonym errors (loathe/loath, horde/hoard, discrete/discreet) and a couple of less common ones (tulle for tuille, perspective for prospect). One author doesn't know how to use apostrophes with plural nouns (or, really, at all), and isn't corrected. And there are the usual common errors of unrequired coordinate commas, missing vocative commas, missing past perfect tense, and "may" instead of "might" in past tense narration scattered across various stories. Some are very good, others quite bad, depending on the skill of the author. (I should point out that I've seen the exact same issue in high-profile, professionally edited anthologies featuring award-winning authors.)

A character has "a plain face, but a handsome one"; which is it? Another character is given the wrong name. A band puts out a CD, many years in the future. There are several cases in which the amount of energy available from alternative sources, or storeable in a small space, is off by orders of magnitude, or gives the impression of being a perpetual motion machine.

So, plenty of issues with the editing, and some with the science. What about the stories?

On the whole, the stories don't have a lot of plot to them, in part because so much space is given to exposition. It's a difficult problem to avoid, given the premise; it plagued better-known writers than these in the anthology Hieroglyph, which also failed (as this one, mostly, does not) to be consistently upbeat in its vision of the future, despite stating that as a specific goal.

These are mostly what I think of as "worthy" stories, good-hearted attempts to envisage positive societies. This can mean that they're lacking in tension sometimes. One in particular, "Amber Waves," seems to set out to take away any tension inherent in the premise; every possible threat (and there are several significant ones) is quickly minimized, and the most disastrous of all turns out to be just what the characters needed. It was the least successful of the stories for me, as a result, lacking both tension and plot despite having the materials for both in ample supply.

Several of the pieces, being more explorations of ideas than plotted stories, use romance (or romantic elements) to provide some shape and a feeling of completion. This isn't a bad ploy; the romance plot is probably the best known plot in the world, so much so that, as with a familiar fairy story, you can reference a couple of elements of it and have the audience fill in the rest for themselves. Sometimes the romance is sweet and positive, as with "Under the Northern Lights"; sometimes, though, men are a problem, most notably in "Camping with City Boy".

The second-best-known plot is the mystery, and there's one of those, too: "Grover: Case #CO9 920, 'The Most Dangerous Blend'". As mysteries go, it's OK, neither not the most plausible nor, sadly, the least plausible I've read in terms of the killer's motivation.

There are a couple of heistish stories, as well, like "Riot of the Wind and Sun," in which a small desert town strives to attract enough attention to itself to gain much-needed resources, and (unsurprisingly) "Midsummer Night's Heist," about, and also by, an Italian subversive art collective which foils fascists.

A theme of many of the stories is a future with constrained resources, having to simplify lifestyles, do without, improvise, find ways around shortages and lacks. Often, this involves smaller, more loosely connected communities doing their best to get along. Several pieces deal with the kind of conflicts that small communities with constrained resources must face; "Watch Out, Red Crusher!" shows us a community that's ultimately unable to deal positively with deviance, which disappointed me, while both "Women of White Water" and "The Call of the Wold" show us older women offering their conflict-resolution and problem-solving skills to isolated groups of people. There's a nice phrase in the latter story: "The mantle of leadership was XXL and he was an extra-small".

Overall, though, this collection shows us a humanity that can step up to face its many problems, which I find commendable. While often short on plot, and needing better copy editing in places, the stories were mostly both enjoyable and thought-provoking for me.

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