Monday 21 January 2019

Review: Poseidon's Academy

Poseidon's Academy Poseidon's Academy by Sarah A Vogler
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Effectively a YA supers story with a skin of Greek myth. The Greek gods were killed in a war with their human slaves centuries ago, and their powers distributed themselves across the human population, so you can be, for example, a Demeter and have the power to grow plants, or a Heracles and be really strong.

The good: It's a fresh premise for a supers novel, and gives the opportunity to drop plenty of Greek mythic stuff, including all kinds of marvellous monsters. There's strong sensawunda in the underwater school filled with beauty and magic.

The bad: there are inevitable Harry Potter echoes whenever you have a magical school, but there are a few too many of them here: acceptance letter, magical plates that fill with whatever food you want in the dining hall, dorm rooms off a common room, staff with names like Madam Mendem (who is the school healer) and Guinevere Grayson. There's also a Sky High moment near the beginning, when the main character's best friend joins her on the roof by having a tree grow and deposit her there. I haven't read Percy Jackson, so I don't know if the parallels there are also too frequent and obvious; it wouldn't surprise me.

There are two Convenient Eavesdrops that are essential to the plot. Two! Now, I realize that in YA, it's difficult to get the kids knowledge of the aduts' plots without a plot device like this, but I still always roll my eyes and think of Five Go Mad in Dorset every time a plucky kid happens to be somewhere and overhear "Rhubarb, rhubarb, secret plans..." And when it happens twice, it's even worse.

Coincidence and poor decision-making pretty much drive the plot, in fact. Even though at the end we're led to believe that key parts of it were orchestrated by the plotters, an important plot token is picked up through a series of events which the plotters couldn't really have influenced. There's not a lot of protagonism from the characters much of the time, and they get off too lightly when they break the rules and endanger their own and each other's lives. There are rather too many in the core cast, and I found myself struggling to remember who had which powers.

There's a very early flashback, introduced by "Her mind flashed back to...". If you're flashing back that early, you're starting in the wrong place.

In the pre-release version I read from Netgalley, there were also a number of awkwardly or incorrectly phrased sentences, which hopefully will be fixed up before publication. A few of them gave hilarious mental images because the literal meaning of the words just hadn't been thought through.

One of the tests I apply to books that have some good and some not-so-good elements is: would I read a sequel? In this case, I think the answer is "no". While there are some well-staged moments and some bravery and determination from the characters, and it's a decently fresh premise, overall the plot is too expected and too reliant on coincidence, and the characters don't develop much depth or individuality. Combined with mediocre sentence-level writing, this adds up to a score of three stars.

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Review: The Philosopher's War

The Philosopher's War The Philosopher's War by Tom Miller
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

War is always stupid and tragic, but I've always thought of World War I as particularly stupid and tragic, possibly because both of my grandmothers lost brothers in it. I wouldn't normally read a book set in WWI, as a result, but I enjoyed the first book in this series so much that I couldn't pass it by. (It was the best book I read in 2017.)

This one didn't disappoint. Here we have Robert Weekes again, 19 years old, sole male flyer in the Rescue and Evacuation Corps (in a world where women have more powerful magic, and drawing sigils in corn powder mixed with sand enables people to fly). He has to contend not only with the hazing and prejudice he suffers as an anomalous interloper, but also with the horrors of war, and with a plan to involve him in a mutiny to prevent the war being won through biological warfare that will kill millions. He has to constantly choose between his lover and his comrades, his duty and his conscience. It comes close to tearing him apart before the end.

I will say, it's a very American view of WWI; the Americans win the war, and the British and Commonwealth (and French) troops go mostly or entirely unmentioned.

One thing I did appreciate, however, was that the morally correct but legally dubious actions of the central characters gain them official displeasure, censure, and punishment (though not as much as early hints led me to expect), and that it's based in large part on powerful men's dislike of the existence of powerful women. The religious extremists who were such a key part of the first book are only briefly referred to in this one, but there's always the awareness that if they handle matters badly, the conspirators will not only draw down dire consequences on themselves, but on others like them.

A coming of age in a terrible set of circumstances, with strong and varied action sequences that mean something emotionally rather than just being there for decoration, and constant inner conflict to match the outer conflict that fuels and drives it. It's wonderfully written, too, and I look forward eagerly to the next in the series.

I received a pre-publication copy from Netgalley for review.

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Review: Tess of the Road

Tess of the Road Tess of the Road by Rachel Hartman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoyed the two Seraphina books tremendously, so when I saw this, set in the same world and starring Seraphina's younger half-sister, I eagerly picked it up.

It's very much a road-trip story, almost a picaresque (the episodic adventures of a rogue), though Tess isn't really as much of a rogue as she thinks she is. The drawback of this is that, because the journey is explicitly more important than the destination, the plot can seem a bit meandering and unanchored. And it's not a short book.

That's largely made up for by the strong interiority of the main character. Tess is initially unappealing; she'll cut off her nose to spite her face, she's irresponsible, resentful, and rebellious seemingly for rebellion's sake. However, she's also living with the consequences of some bad decisions, and making just enough effort to do better that I was prepared to give her a chance.

I'm glad I did. Her inner journey is mostly more interesting than her outer journey, and much more the point of the story, and the author handles it expertly. The slow unrolling of her tragic backstory serves to keep up the suspense, and culminates in a shocking moment of revelation.

Tess has to pretend to be a man in order to be safe on the road and to be taken seriously, and there is plenty of exploration of male-female dynamics. It's not preachy or one-dimensional, though; there are several good men in the story. A sidelight is provided by Tess's childhood friend, the reptilian quigutl, who was female when they first met but is now male. The quigutls' alien viewpoint provides an interesting counterpoint to Tess's exploration of her own culture's unexamined beliefs.

I listened to this as an audiobook, so I can't comment much on the copy editing, except to say that a crevasse is not a crevice, and a baronet is not a baron, or anything like one. Apart from these glitches, I had no issue with the prose or the worldbuilding.

This is marked as the first in a new series, and I will definitely read a sequel when it arrives.

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Review: Pendulum Heroes

Pendulum Heroes Pendulum Heroes by James Beamon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I don't generally read LitRPG, which this arguably is (it's the old "D&D players drawn into the world of the game" premise, which goes back almost as far as the game itself). I decided to give this one a shot, though, because the blurb intrigued me - particularly the teenage boy stuck as a warrior princess in a chainmail bikini - and I recognised the author's name from a writers' forum we both belong to. (I don't think we've ever directly interacted there, and I don't believe this connection influenced my rating.)

It's capably done, not just your standard campaign transcript or thud-and-blunder pulp, but with enough extra depth to make it more interesting and thought-provoking. In particular, it highlights the shallowness of teen boys who delight in death and destruction without empathy, or are thoughtless in their attitudes to women. It's not preachy, though; it shows rather than tells.

The plot is standard enough, a travelling quest in which the party faces multiple and varied challenges, but it's kept moving well and enjoyably executed. The characters are distinct, and have a bit of depth to them, particularly Rich, Melvin, and Melvin's older veteran brother Mike. There's a lightly sketched romantic triangle to provide extra tension.

I enjoyed it, and I would read a sequel.

I received a pre-release copy from Netgalley for review.

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Review: Hero Status

Hero Status Hero Status by Kristen Brand
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I saw this recommended by a friend, Samantha Dunway Bryant, who is herself an author of superhero fiction. It's a genre I enjoy, and the premise sounded promising, so I grabbed the sample. Seeing few copy editing issues (especially as compared with the usual low superhero-fiction standard) and a motivated protagonist in a dynamic situation, I bought the book, and was glad I did.

It reminded me very much of a noir detective novel, with the protagonist getting beaten up repeatedly and having to deal with mobsters in order to help the femme fatale (who, in this case, is his wife). He solves the case through sheer perseverance combined with ingenuity, which is a combination I always enjoy.

The setup with the supers is (as such things go) believable, the plot was textbook, and the protagonist/narrator was appealing and relatable.

This is the start of a series, and although the next one, from the viewpoint of the supervillain wife, isn't as appealing to me as this one, I may well read it and/or others when I'm next in the mood for some well-written superhero fiction.

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Review: The Raven Tower

The Raven Tower The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I always seem to begin my reviews of Ann Leckie's books by remarking that she has the fortunate/unfortunate situation of having written a first book so amazing that all her others will be compared to it; and that so far, for me, none of her other books have quite equalled it. That's the case again with this one, her first fantasy novel. It's good - I'd even say very good - but in the shadow of her first book, not quite as outstanding.

Once again, it plays with point of view. This time, Leckie has chosen to write much of it in the difficult and much-despised second person. That can easily be a gimmick, and while reading I was never 100% convinced that it wasn't, but thinking about it, and especially reflecting on the ending, I've decided it was justified. The narrator is a god, who fills in a lot of important historical backstory in first person - backstory that isn't available to the protagonist in any way. But for most of the book, the god is largely passive, participating in events but not obviously driving them; it's the "you" character who is the protagonist, speaking to people and doing things and taking risks.

Once again, it plays with gender; the protagonist is a trans man, which is fairly incidental as far as the plot goes, but important to him.

Once again, it manages to both be personal and also have epic scope, which is a difficult balancing act. It can all too easily drop into a Great Man version of history with a full-on Chosen One whose every action is fated and bears vast significance; yet Leckie manages to hold it back from that precipice, to show us people with flaws and insecurities who are nevertheless able to participate in momentous events. In this case, the twist at the end gives rise to doubts about who was actually the protagonist after all.

On the face of it, it's a relatively simple story. The protagonist is a soldier, aide to the heir to the position of Raven's Lease, a kind of proxy of the god known as the Raven. They arrive back from the disputed southern border, whence they have been recalled because the current Raven's Lease, the heir's father, was unwell, to discover a Hamletesque coup has been enacted and the heir's uncle has taken over as Lease. For the good of everyone, he assures anyone who will listen.

The heir is petulant and brooding, the aide (Horatio, presumably) patient and effective, the Ophelia character sensible and competent - and very sane. While the Hamlet parallels are obvious (the Ophelia's counsellor father even gets stabbed, and the heir is blamed), they aren't followed slavishly; each element has a twist to it, and the ending is quite different.

Interwoven with all of this is the millenia-long backstory of the struggles and conquests of the gods, which turns out to be a lot more significant than I initially realised to what seems to be the main plot.

It's a clever, complex idea, well executed, which is to say that it's an Ann Leckie book. I dithered about whether to give it five stars, because the ending subverted my narrative expectations so thoroughly as to be a kind of disappointment, but for sheer quality I'm going to award the fifth star.

I received a pre-release copy from Netgalley for review.

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Tuesday 1 January 2019

Top Books for 2018

This is my fifth annual roundup of the books I read in a year. Earlier instalments are here: my top 17 books for 2017,  my top 16 books for 2016 (actually only 15), my top 15 books for 2015, and my top 14 books for 2014. Note that these are books I read in those years, not books published in those years - though these days I am reading a lot from Netgalley, which are often advance copies of books that haven't yet been published, so a higher proportion of my reading is books published in the year I read them.

There's a Zen story about a monk who went to the market square and overheard a conversation between a butcher and his customer.
"Which is your best cut of meat?" said the customer.
"They are all the best," said the butcher. "I have nothing here that isn't the best."
Hearing this, the monk was enlightened.

Sadly, I can't say the same for the books I read in 2018. In fact, my feeling is that they're a poorer crop than in previous years. I read more books than last year, but - well, let's look at the numbers.

My total numbers are up again, with 94 (complete) books read for the first time, instead of the 85 I read in 2017 and the 77 I read in 2016. Here are my figures in a table:

5 star4 star3 star2 starTotal

Quantity is up, but quality is down a bit; only six five-star books this year, and one of them was a re-read, which I've not counted in the figures, so effectively half as many five-star discoveries as was usual in the past few years. And I was overall less satisfied with the books, and felt I was being more generous with my ratings than perhaps I should be. Not sure exactly what's going on there; maybe I'm just getting fussier.

Once again, the bulk of the books I read get four 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 got suckered into finishing a couple of books that ended up with two stars, something I managed to avoid last year. I don't usually finish books I think are going to be one (or two) stars, and I don't rate books I don't finish.

Goodreads' five-star rating system isn't really nuanced enough for me, and I've tried a couple of different hacks over the years to make up for the lack of half stars. This year's hack, which I think I'll keep, is to create a Goodreads shelf for the books I think deserve to go on the Year's Best list, and put them on that shelf as I read them. I shelved 19 books this way, so I decided to break my arbitrary pattern of matching the number of books on the list to the calendar year. I was planning to stop doing that in 2021 in any case, and just stick with a top 20, but now my plan is just to have however many top books I have.

I was curious about whether it was because I was getting so many books from Netgalley that the quality was down. Many of the Netgalley books have not yet had their final copyedit, and some of them are not formatted properly for my e-reader, which inevitably drags my enjoyment down no matter how hard I try to ignore it. So I did some analysis. Ten of the 19 Year's Best books were from Netgalley (including two of the five five-stars), as were 24 of the 54 four-star books that didn't make it to Year's Best, but only four of the 15 three-stars. Both of the two-star books were from Netgalley. So out of 94 books, 40 were from Netgalley (fewer than I thought; I would have said at least half), and 34 of those were at least four-star or better. It doesn't seem to be Netgalley dragging down the quality; the opposite, if anything, though both two-star books came from there. I may have felt more obligated to finish them than I otherwise would have, because I had been DNFing a good many books from Netgalley, and you're supposed to review a certain percentage.

Top-Rated Books

So, here is my list, ranked in reverse order (your taste may well vary). There's one nonfiction book this year. I've started reading more nonfiction books, after a long period of reading hardly any, but only one of them made the Year's Best list.

Links are, as usual, to my Goodreads reviews.

First, the ones that didn't quite make it to five stars but were very strong four-star books:

19. Sorcerer to the Crown, Zen Cho. Barely squeaks in, because I felt it fell apart a bit towards the end, but if you are looking for pitch-perfect Victorian balanced by some modern perspectives, this is the place to go.

18. The Story Peddler, Lindsay A. Franklin. Scores low mainly because it's dystopian, and I dislike dystopian, but it's on the list because it managed to be a dystopian I didn't dislike. A determined heroine was a big part of the appeal.

17. The Iron Codex, David Mack. Dark, but not grimdark, blending post-WWII spies with ceremonial magic in a fresh and ultimately enjoyable combination.

16. Lost Solace, Karl Drinkwater. Space opera adventure, and yes, she's a rebel and a supersoldier, but it does "motivated protagonist in a dynamic situation" so well that I was swept along, despite this not normally being my genre.

15. Foundryside, Robert Jackson Bennett. The last of the "things I don't usually like done too well to ignore" books on the list, this one gives us another motivated, competent, principled female protagonist in a dynamic situation (all of which I do like, very much), in a setting where uncaring plutocrats grind the faces of the poor (that's the bit I usually don't care for).

14. Broad Band: The Untold Story of the Women Who Made the Internet, Claire L. Evans. The sole nonfiction book on this year's list reminds us of the forgotten contribution of women to computer programming and the Internet. It's a well-written piece of journalism, and a fascinating story.

13. The Dragon Machine, Ben S. Dobson. The first book in the Magebreakers series made it to last year's list at #8; the second, for me, wasn't quite listworthy, but this third volume deserves its spot. The detective duo has great chemistry, and the half-orc half of it delights once again with her zest for life.

12. The Lord of Stariel, AJ Lancaster. A fresh secondary-world fantasy involving the inheritance of a magical estate. The no-nonsense protagonist was a big part of the appeal.

11. ScalesNicole Conway. A supers story, of sorts, and a YA, which could easily mean "cliche-ridden" but in this case doesn't. Fresh and appealing.

10. Shift, M.A. George. An alternate-worlds story with a heroine driven by love for her brother, providing a great engine to keep the story moving.

9. The Book of Peril, Melissa McShane. This is McShane's third appearance on my top list in as many years (she also had an honorable mention on last year's list, as well as making the #13 spot in both 2016 and 2017), and although the first in this series didn't quite make it onto the list because of a lack of urgency, this one deserves its place. A fine noblebright ending that overturns expectations.

8. Navigating the Stars, Maria V. Snyder. Another YA, and another space opera, which could easily have been by-the-numbers in the hands of a lesser talent. Some fresh worldbuilding, an intriguing out-there premise (involving mysterious vanished aliens who transported Chinese terracotta warriors to other planets), and a delightful protagonist voice.

7. Heroine Complex, Sarah Kuhn. More supers (it is one of my favourite genres), but the story is really about friendship, rivalry, and being noticed or not noticed.

6. A Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, Becky Chambers. Some people don't like this because it's not a relentless space opera adventure. I like it because it's warm and humane and all about the relationships.

Now, the five-star books:

5. The Epic Crush of Genie Lo, F.C. Yee. Supers again, but this time out of Chinese myth (The Journey to the West), relocated to the present-day San Francisco Bay Area. An enjoyable insight into Chinese-American culture with a strong comedic tone.

4. Legion: The Many Lives of Stephen Leeds, Brandon Sanderson. Sanderson's Shadows of Self hit #6 on last year's list; this one's higher rank in part reflects a year with not as many very good books, but it's a carefully crafted, complex book with one of the author's trademark out-of-the-box premises.

3. Good Guys, Steven Brust. The author sets himself a considerable writing challenge and defeats it by sheer talent and experience. Morally complex, which is not a euphemism for "full of despicable characters"; instead, it's full of flawed characters in an imperfect situation who are striving to be better people and do the right thing, whatever that is.

2. A Closed and Common Orbit, Becky Chambers. Yes, the second book is even better than the first. A tighter cast allows for a deeper immersion in two parallel stories of what it means to be free and a person.

1. Sourdough, Robin Sloan. Someday Robin Sloan will write a perfect book; this isn't it, but it's closer than ever (for me; some people seem to hate it, probably because it involves millennial hipsters). A beautiful reflection on culture (in multiple senses), work and its meaning, and our relationships with food and technology.

Author Gender Breakdown

I started compiling figures last year for author gender (based on what's stated on their Goodreads profiles) for my top list. Without operating a quota system of any kind, I've tended to find myself reading about 50/50 male and female authors overall, but the numbers in my top lists skew female most years. This year was no exception.

Note that I messed up in 2016 and actually only posted a top 15, not a top 16 as I'd intended.


Protagonist gender is even more skewed towards female, which is a conscious choice (I just find women more interesting protagonists). Out of the 18 books which are fiction, there are two with a male protagonist and no female viewpoint characters (Legion and Scales), both of which do have female characters with agency and importance to the plot. Good Guys and The Iron Codex favor the male protags, but female protags are there. The nonfiction book (Broad Band), of course, is all about women. Twelve of the 19 top-rated books have only female protagonists (several have more than one), and two give more or less equal time to a male and a female protagonist (that's The Dragon Machine and, slightly less equally, Sorcerer to the Crown).

What Makes These Books the Best?

Reading as much as I do, I see a lot of books that don't attempt to go beyond the most well-worn genre conventions, characters, and plots - or, if they attempt it, don't succeed. The books on my top list are not stamped out of a mould. They take what's been done before as a starting point, not a target. They mix and blend genres, sometimes; they surprise, they innovate. Sometimes they even make me like genres I don't usually read, because they show me strongly-motivated, courageous, principled, individualized characters dealing with their compelling situations with determination and skill. Not all of them are without cliche elements or writing faults, but each of them shows strengths that lift them above the pack.

Sturgeon was right: 90% of everything is crap. But the quest for that other 10% takes me to some interesting places. I hope you'll join me on the trip.