Sunday 30 June 2019

Review: Gods of Jade and Shadow

Gods of Jade and Shadow Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I don't usually pick up books with "dark" in the blurb, but for this one I made an exception, because of the author. I'm glad I did.

I recently read a set of guidelines for a short story market that said "Don't send me X unless you're Silvia Moreno-Garcia," so I'm not the only one who thinks about her this way. I'd previously read her novel The Beautiful Ones, which is so full of potential to be a horrible tragedy, but instead pulls off what I've come to call the Glorious Ending: a character rises above themselves, above what any ordinary person would do, and does something that is so much the right thing, so much an act of love in the face of a dark world, that everything is changed.

Well, at the risk of a vague spoiler (because I don't think you'll guess exactly how it comes off), she's done it again.

The protagonist, Casiopea, a young Mexican woman whose native (late) father is used by her family as an excuse to make her their domestic servant, is fully believable as a naive young woman who hasn't ever left her small town, but has read widely and has big dreams. Or, actually, relatively small and conventional dreams, which end up being rendered irrelevant by the actual adventure that finds her: the lord of the (Mayan) underworld needs her help to regain his throne from his usurping brother. She continues to be believable, and becomes increasingly rounded as a character, as she copes with this bizarre and unwanted situation, confronting sorcerers and gods and other supernatural beings, plus her spoiled and hapless cousin (who also gets a bit of a growth arc).

Early on, the story starts looking like Cinderella, and the narration specifically averts that conclusion; nor does it work out remotely like Cinderella, because if anyone is rescuing anyone, it's the young woman rescuing the prince. And herself, and indeed everyone, in the end. It's magnificent.

The omniscient narrator is unusual these days, but it works; it gives us extra insight into the protagonist when she doesn't have insight into herself yet, without becoming an intrusive character voice in its own right.

The Mexican setting, one I'm not very familiar with, is beautifully and richly portrayed; there's a strong sense of place and of culture. The language, vocabulary, and writing mechanics are at a level I see all too seldom from native English speakers. (I assume, from the authentic feel of the Mexican setting, that the author has English as a second language, but I could be wrong there.) There's a thread, evolving ever so slowly and subtly but clearly, of romance, but it doesn't follow a conventional path; nothing in this book does.

I've been through a spell of reading not-very-good books for a while, and this was a welcome breaking of the drought. It's going near the top of my Best of 2019 list, both because it's extremely well done and also because it's exactly the kind of book I most enjoy.

I received a review copy via Netgalley.

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Review: Fatechanger: Penny Lost

Fatechanger: Penny Lost Fatechanger: Penny Lost by L.M. Poplin
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I took a long break from reading this to read something else, and only barely decided to come back and finish it.

The first few chapters are unpromising (hence the break and reluctant return). Far from being any kind of "fatechanger," as per the title, the main character, Penn, lacks much agency. She's thrown unexpectedly through time, in what at first seems like it's a contrived mechanism for the sake of the plot with no real explanation behind it (though later on it turns out that the explanation is... pretty much exactly what I thought it would be if there was an explanation). Once back in 1915, she takes, without much resistance, the first and seemingly only option open to her: she becomes a pickpocket in an Oliver-Twist-like gang of youths (disguised as a boy). She doesn't seem to suffer much in the way of moral angst about this, though we have been shown, prior to her trip through time, that she wasn't above a bit of stealing here and there.

Things pick up a bit once she manages to buy her way out of debt to the Fagin of the thieves (who runs a remarkably fair and unrigged system that allows her to do so), and instead chooses to be a newsboy - though she's not welcomed by the other newsboys, and has to prove herself again. She does this, as she did among the thieves, by being much better than them at what they do (and have been doing for a long time). Her foreknowledge of the significance of the newspaper headlines plays some role, but basically she's just that talented at selling newspapers, somewhat inexplicably given what else we see of her.

There's a marked dichotomy in Penn all the way through, in fact. On the one hand, she's helpless and lacking in options, stranded in another time without the medical treatment she needs for her heart condition, with no idea of even where to begin to look to find her way back to her own time. She has absolutely no knack of making friends, and gets herself resented by both groups she joins. On the other hand, she's incredibly good at everything she tries, ends up with a bunch of friends and allies despite herself, and eventually gets handed the way back without having had to work for it in any way (and without even attempting to do so).

This feels to me like double deprotagonization, both through lack of agency in the situation and also through being handed things she either doesn't earn or earns too easily through excessive natural ability. This, combined with some very basic, though not too frequent, copy editing issues, combined to lower my rating to three stars.

I received a review copy via Netgalley. I assume the errors I noticed are in the published version, since the publication date is in the past.

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Tuesday 18 June 2019

Review: Knightmare Arcanist

Knightmare Arcanist Knightmare Arcanist by Shami Stovall
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

YA fantasy with a fresh premise - at least, fresh to me: people bond to any of a wide variety of mystical creatures and become arcanists, their powers differing based on the creature they are bonded to. Also, there's a magical plague which drives the creatures mad and corrupts the humans who are bonded to them, and pirates are deliberately spreading it as a terror tactic (and because it can make their creatures' magic more powerful).

It's a premise that's well thought through and well sustained. There's a contained cast - six young people, newly bonded, coming to an arcanists' guild as apprentices, all of whom were easy to tell apart, and most of whom played clear and necessary roles; and no more than four more senior guildspeople, of whom two featured heavily.

There's also a positive adoptive father-figure, who isn't on stage much but is very much present in recollection for the main character. That character is motivated to prove to everyone that he isn't a criminal like his parents, but a noble and good person like his adoptive father, and it's a strong motivation, well handled. He wants to do right, but because of everyone's expectations about him and the way the situation is set up, often ends up breaking the rules in order to do what he thinks ought to be done.

The kids' conflicts are believable and not just cliches, and their characters at least begin to flesh out during the story, in ways that make sense. While there are hints of early attraction that will no doubt cause trouble between them in the future, nothing becomes overt in this book as far as romance between the cast is concerned.

There is the usual hard-to-swallow YA trope of inexperienced apprentices being able to do anything whatsoever against a more powerful and mature foe (and I did spot the roles of "unexpected" villain and unlikely ally coming several miles off), but I think the author pulls it off in the end.

The worldbuilding is fairly light, and mostly centred on the magical creatures (who have their own personalities, particularly the ferretlike rizzel, who's consistently amusing). There are two or three familiar names from the real world, mixed with a lot of made-up names, which was a touch odd; I thought "at least the author doesn't make the common mistake of using biblical names in a setting where Christianity doesn't exist," but then late in the piece there was a cathedral, so perhaps Christianity, or something like it, does exist.

I had a pre-release copy from Netgalley, and the very common issue of missing past perfect tense when referring to earlier events in past tense narration was frequent; it may be reduced (but, given how frequent it is, probably won't be eliminated) by thorough copy editing before publication.

Overall, with those few caveats, this is a sound and entertaining piece of storytelling, and I would happily read more in the series.

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Monday 3 June 2019

Review: Pricked

Pricked Pricked by Scott Mooney
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Approaches urban fantasy kind of from the back - the entrance marked "Fairy-Tale Universe, with Mystery Plot". But the protagonist, Briar, is the familiar kickass, smartass woman of urban fantasy, though with a somewhat fresh magical power: she can enchant roses to change people's emotions.

This is a power that grows during the story, disturbingly for her. Despite her noir-detective manner, she's good-hearted; she gets involved in the story problem because it looks like the only way to get her friend disenchanted from a curse that appeared to have been meant for Briar. This is a good approach to motivating the character based on her relationships without fridging anyone (since the friend is still around and able to interact, though she doesn't play a big role in the story).

A motivated character in a dynamic situation is always going to work for me, and I was quickly swept up. There were some issues; as is common for American authors, this author conflates nobility and royalty, and doesn't know the correct terms of address for them either. He capitalises terms that don't need it, and the past perfect tense is frequently conspicuous by its absence, which always interrupts the flow of the story for me. He uses "besides" when he means "apart from" (which could be a dialect difference), and has a tendency to said bookisms. In the pre-release version I read from Netgalley, some of the apostrophes were misplaced. The fairy-tale (and New York) references get a bit cutesy or cheesy at times, too. But some lovely phrases partly make up for this: "Do not pass denouement, do not collect happily ever after," or "an ostentatious gown with more blue ribbon in it than Michael Phelps’s bedroom."

I could take or leave the love triangle aspect, personally, but apart from that the plot and character interactions worked well for me, and I was surprised by the twist.

Far from a perfect book, but showing definite strengths, and promise as a series. I really hope the author learns to use the past perfect tense, though.

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Review: Soulmates

Soulmates Soulmates by Mike Resnick
My rating: 0 of 5 stars

DNF at 34%.

What I expected was highly competent and compelling writing from much-lauded professionals.

What I got was lightweight sentimentality, which, in the pre-release version I got from Netgalley, badly needed very basic copy editing.

The stories are linear, the characters minimally developed, and the emotional beats, for me, lacked much punch, though I did enjoy their positivity.

I often read extremely well-written, but dark, fiction and wish it was kinder and happier. Reading this, which is kinder and happier but no more than barely competent, I wished for something that combined the best of both worlds. It must be out there somewhere, but I didn't find it here.

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Review: Ascending

Ascending Ascending by Margaret Pechenick
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A well-edited, well-written story of second contact, with an appealing, if bland, narrator/protagonist, but somewhat lacking for me in character development and worldbuilding.

I say second contact because it's set 25 years after a superior alien civilization comes to Earth, takes a good look, and decides to go away again. Shortly after the story starts, they decide to come back - a controversial decision, and subject to much debate within their own culture.

The book is narrated by a graduate student in linguistics who is the only person, apart from her elderly professor/mentor (involved in the first contact), who can speak their language, after a learning process that (with incredible convenience) ended about three weeks before the aliens unexpectedly and unpredictably returned. I'm prepared to reluctantly allow one convenient coincidence per plot, and happily there are no others. However, that's not the end of my issues with the book (which I nevertheless enjoyed overall).

One thing I've noticed about a lot of SF books being published at the moment is that the actual science is a bit dubious. I'm not talking about the genre conventions of artificial gravity and FTL travel; I mean mistakes like conducting radio communication "in real time" from "the edge of the Sol system" (wherever that is), and a pocket-sized oxygen dispenser that's good for a month (as a supplement, but still). For that matter, nine-sided dice; that isn't a number of faces that can be on a regular polyhedron.

That's one level of the issues I had. Another is that the aliens are just not that alien in a lot of ways, despite part of the point of the whole thing being that the protagonist is immersed in an alien culture. They have weeks and months, though the weeks appear to be eight days long (it's never really discussed). They'll kick a person under the table to tell them to shut up. The women wear dresses. For that matter, they're biologically very humanoid; blue blood, yes, but despite being descended from predators, they mostly eat vegetables, and their bodies are very much the same shape as humans'. They have one language (with some dialects) and effectively one culture, despite being a multiplanetary species. There's really not much about them that couldn't plausibly be part of a human culture.

They're stronger and faster than humans, with better eyesight and hearing, and are quicker to learn (everyone on the ship speaks fluent English, despite the fact that some are not at all fans of humanity). They're a largely nonviolent society. But they do have flaws. They're excessively obedient to authority, they apparently don't screen their spaceship crews very well at all, and their computer systems are hard to learn to use (which, as someone in the industry, I can tell you points to poor design).

Then, I didn't feel like the characters had a lot of depth, weight, or backstory. Not just the aliens, and the incidental humans we encounter early on, though certainly them; but Avery, the grad student narrator, herself. Even though we get the entire story through her, she never really had that much dimension for me.

She says things that make it clear that she's had boyfriends, but she doesn't talk about any of them specifically - anything she remembers about them, anything she's learned from her mistakes with them. She has parents, but they're lightly sketched in. She mentions a best friend, but unless this is the person she met briefly during training, this best friend isn't ever named and there are no reminiscences about her either. Her roommates are just a couple of names with no qualities attached. It's as if she comes into existence at the beginning of the book, with the most bland and generic background to go with her bland, generic identity as a basic middle-class white girl. She's a good student, but not outstanding; she manages to be, at one and the same time, the obvious candidate to be the first human sent to live among the aliens, and completely average and undistinguished.

Her mentor considers her to have personal qualities of humility, kindness, and patience, which is why he selects her to learn the alien language and be the potential representative of humanity, and while she doesn't show herself to not have those qualities, she didn't, for me, particularly show herself to have them to an unusual degree either.

Despite all of these reservations, I did enjoy the book, and wanted Avery to succeed. I just wish that everything had been a little richer and better developed.

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Review: The Big Book of Classic Fantasy

The Big Book of Classic Fantasy The Big Book of Classic Fantasy by Ann VanderMeer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Firstly, let's be clear: when the editors call this a big book, they're not kidding around. It's enormous.

"Classic" fantasy here extends from the late 18th to the mid-20th century, and the stories (and excerpts from novels) are arranged chronologically, so patterns emerge naturally as you read through. The early stories are not what we think of as short stories today; they're narrations of a series of events, and the characters are barely characters at all, just names with a couple of qualities attached. They tend not to drive the story particularly; they respond to events, but they aren't true protagonists.

By the mid-to-late 19th century, things have settled down, and writers have figured out plot and character pretty much as we know them today, though both continue to be enriched and refined over the following years. Until, that is, the early 20th century, when various experimental writers take things in new directions - directions that mostly proved unfruitful, I have to say. The modernist pieces are, to my ear, overwritten, repetitious, slow-moving and excessively descriptive at the expense of plot and character. We are back where we started in some ways: plots replaced by a series of events, characters replaced by names and vague qualities, effective protagonism largely absent.

Then comes the pulp era, and things pick up again (for my taste). The descriptions can still be a bit over-rich, but we have characters with goals driving plots to a satisfying conclusion. The characters can still be a bit thin, but they demonstrate their thoughts and feelings in action rather than reflection.

The collection ends with a Tolkien story, "Leaf by Niggle," which, like most of the better-known pieces, I'd read before, but which I very much enjoyed re-reading.

There's a mixture of very well-known classics, starting with Poe's "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar," with more obscure pieces and authors, some of them originally written in other languages and here in English for, in many cases, the first time. As with other anthologies that attempt this kind of thing, I sometimes felt that the pieces had deserved their obscurity, though there were one or two gems. For example, before I'd even finished reading the excerpt from Living Alone, I went and downloaded the whole book from Project Gutenberg and read it before continuing with this book. The charming voice that had drawn me to it turned out to be its greatest, almost its only, strength, but I was glad to have discovered it.

I did skip a couple of stories in whole or in part. I'd read Kafka's Metamorphosis before, a long time ago, and had no particular desire to re-read it; and one of the stories became so tedious that I eventually skipped ahead to the next one. I considered doing this with several others, as well. Parts of the book I found a slog; see above about overwriting and deserved obscurity.

I suspect that this anthology is intended largely as a textbook, like the Norton anthologies that we had when I studied English at university. As a textbook, it provides a lot of fine material for analysis; it's deliberately wide-ranging, bringing in examples of many literary movements from multiple countries, while not neglecting the well-known English and American classics. As a straight read-through for entertainment, it's uneven, and sometimes, for my taste, not enjoyable at all. But it's certainly a monumental effort by the editors, and I commend their ambition, even if I didn't love every part of the result.

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Review: Lightwave: Clocker: Folding Space Series Book 1.0

Lightwave: Clocker: Folding Space Series Book 1.0 Lightwave: Clocker: Folding Space Series Book 1.0 by AM Scott
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book has several all-too-common problems, and so despite the fact that it was otherwise generally competent, I'm unlikely to read a sequel.

First, the problem of people who don't know much science trying to write science fiction. The justification for why someone is travelling around "tuning" atomic clocks is one of the most egregious bits of nonsensical technobabble (combined with mysticism) that I've seen. Also, the author speaks as if constellations are real astronomical groupings of stars physically close to one another, rather than imaginary groupings of stars that happen to be in the same part of Earth's sky (but are often physically far apart).

Then, some of the very common editing issues. It seems that a lot of authors these days don't understand how the past perfect tense works, and there are several dozen examples in this book where it should have been used instead of simple past, but wasn't. There are also occasional excess commas between non-coordinating adjectives (a very common error; the comma usage is otherwise good, and the apostrophes are all correct.) And there are some glaring dangling modifiers, and a few straight-out typos. It's far from the worst I've seen, certainly, but there are so many of them (especially the missing past perfect) that I was constantly brought up short and distracted from the story.

The story itself is OK; the beginning of an extremely slow-burn romance which, in this book, mostly consists of both attracted parties repeatedly noting to themselves the obstacles to acting on the attraction; and a half-hearted mystery plot with many suspects and no detective to speak of, which resolves itself abruptly. There are a couple of decent action sequences towards the end, and we're shown good-hearted characters who in at least some cases have a degree of depth and backstory. It's very far from terrible, but it's not outstanding either.

Just OK.

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Review: Ravenstone: The Complete Saga

Ravenstone: The Complete Saga Ravenstone: The Complete Saga by M.S. Verish
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

One of the key questions I ask myself when summing up a book is, "Would I read a sequel?"

It's telling, then, that with the sequel actually included in the same volume - no effort or expense at all involved in getting it - my answer at the end of the first book is "no".

A bland and trite fantasy world. An unimaginative quest. Incompetent characters with not much depth to them, and three out of the four of them end up having exactly the same trauma (having killed someone). But what really puts me off is the language.

At first inconsistently, but later on most of the time, it's written in what I think of as Vancian prose: excessively ornate, and therefore distancing. People don't just say things; they "utter" and "voice". I don't enjoy that even when Jack Vance does it, and he at least does it competently. Few other people do, and these authors are not among those few. For example, they seem to think that "obviate" means "make obvious," which it certainly does not.

The prose therefore ends up as a clumsy disaster, like a clown in a crowded broom closet.

A better story, better characters, or a better setting might have tempted me to read on, but with all of those mediocre at best, the terrible prose was too much to wade through for a second volume.

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