Tuesday 23 July 2019

Review: The Forbidden Stars

The Forbidden Stars The Forbidden Stars by Tim Pratt
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A space opera heist caper, where the target is an entire solar system, and the mark is a group of fascist aliens (servants of Mythos-esque, godlike, ancient malevolent aliens, who are sleeping but not dead).

Because it was structured as a heist, and because it was so enjoyable, I forgave the ease with which the tiny crew achieved everything they set out to do. The third time the main progagonist went in alone into a facility full of enemies, this time almost literally with her hands tied behind her back, rather than being put off by the over-the-top unlikeliness I just thought, "Oh, it's like when Miles Vorkosigan goes into the prison camp, naked and alone, and you know that it's everyone else that's in trouble. This will be cool to watch play out."

The banter and snark are fun, the stakes are high enough to keep up some tension without ever dragging the story into the dark, and overall it's a good ride.

I've read the first of the trilogy, but not the second; I didn't find that caused me any confusion, but I will go back and read the second one, because I enjoy these books so much.

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Wednesday 17 July 2019

Review: Ivory Apples

Ivory Apples Ivory Apples by Lisa Goldstein
My rating: 0 of 5 stars

Jo Walton says of this book, "I loved it. You'll love it too."

She really should know better than to say things like that.

I tried hard. I came back to it twice after going off and reading other things that appealed to me more. But in the end I DNFed at 47%.

Why? Not because it isn't well-written; it is. But because, despite a fantasy premise that (as far as I read) was more background than foreground, what this mainly reminded me of was those grim-and-gritty, real-life-sucks YA novels that I avoided as a teenager, because frankly I'd rather read something escapist.

It's very good - for me, too good - at portraying an abusive adult in charge of children, and the desperate lengths one of the children goes to in response. But that isn't what I want to read.

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Saturday 13 July 2019

Review: The Return of the Incredible Exploding Man

The Return of the Incredible Exploding Man The Return of the Incredible Exploding Man by Dave Hutchinson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Here's what I'd tell this author if I was his editor. Obviously, I'm not.

Your prose is well above average. That's what kept me reading through the very slow first quarter; I don't know that it would do as much for most readers. Your structure, on the other hand, needs a lot of work.

The first quarter consists entirely of a sad loser (one of my least favourite kinds of character, speaking for myself) resisting a decision that it's clear he will end up making. What's not clear is why he's resisting it. Is he fiercely independent and doesn't like being railroaded? If so, you need to show that more obviously, and also make it a trait that carries through into the rest of the book. Likewise if he's just self-sabotaging. I couldn't figure out which one it was, or if it was something else, and it never ended up mattering anyway.

The middle half is stronger, but at the three-quarter mark it takes a sharp left turn, and practically all the plot lines and characters that have been gradually developing through the middle are thrown away, never to be resolved. Your title promises, and the blurb hints, that this is a supers book. It isn't for the first three-quarters, and the last quarter is only a supers book if you're extremely generous with the definition. Then the ending is a complete damp fizzle.

Here's what I suggest you do. Cut two-thirds of the first 75%, including most of the first 25%. Get rid of all the plotlines that go nowhere and the characters that disappear at the three-quarter mark for no particular reason except that the book has suddenly changed what it's about. If possible, bring in at least two of the three new characters you introduce in the last quarter (the Polish scientist and the two government agents); don't introduce significant new characters after the first act if you can help it.

Develop the relationships with Wendy, the scientist from the early part, and if possible Rob Chen. They're underutilised. The relationship with Wendy doesn't have to be a romance (you briefly hint at the possibility, but never follow through), but it should be more than it is. Chen is a throwaway at the moment. You developed the relationship with Ralph, the old man next door, well; I want to see you do the same with other characters that last until the end of the book.

And definitely develop the relationship with the villain. Perhaps you could toss in the theory that the reason Alex and he were the only ones who were able to leave after the accident was that they were having a confrontation at the time; either the emotional heightening or the physical proximity could provide an explanation for what is, at the moment, unexplained. It's fine if that's just a theory that never gets confirmed, but humans come up with theories to explain things. At the moment, no explanation is even attempted. Have the scientists at least figure something out, and show us a bit of their process, and their personal process around the scientific process. That's your chance to give the female characters, particularly Wendy, more to do; at the moment, they're tokens. "Look, my book has women scientists! Two of them!" Yes, well, good for you, but they don't play that much role in the plot, especially not as scientists, and not as fully realised people either.

Instead of just having the agents tell Alex about the damage the villain's doing, have him go and see and feel the devastation it's causing for himself. Have him try to help the victims with his new powers, which are seriously underutilized; there's not even a suggestion that he should be considering the good he can do on a large scale. He barely does much on a small scale.

The whole new middle should be about him trying to come to terms with his new powers, trying to use them in a way that matters, hitting limitations, discovering that helping people isn't simple, opening out beyond his self-absorption, differentiating himself from the villain, and becoming more determined to stop the villain. Give me a reason to be emotionally invested. Lead up to the second confrontation with the villain, and make it the turning point of Act 3, not just an inconclusive thing that happened without much foreshadowing or emotional weight. Then show us how things resolve for the characters we've now come to care about. Not everything needs to wrap up in a neat bow, but something needs to resolve. At the moment, the ending is nothing. It has no thematic resonance (in part because the book is so disjointed), it has no sense of a plot coming to a conclusion, it's just a place where you stop writing. Everything has changed for Alex, but nothing has changed for him. Give him an internal journey to match his external one.

In the current version, the book Alex is writing never comes together and ends up just being lost, uncompleted. I assume that's not intended as a metaphor for this book, but it certainly could be.

If you wrote the book I describe above, or anything close to it, it could be a five-star book for me. You're a clever writer. You could make it not cliched, you could have things that are left unsettled, you could avoid turning it into a Hollywood cookie-cutter plot. Yes, it's more conventional than what you've done, but classics are classics because they work. As it stands, your version only makes it to three stars because of the quality of the prose; structurally and in terms of pacing, it doesn't work for me at all, and I think there are serious missteps. It's certainly not the "thrilling science fiction masterwork" that the blurb promises.

(I received a review copy via Netgalley.)

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Review: This Is How You Lose the Time War

This Is How You Lose the Time War This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I don't know about the time war, but this is how you win a bunch of awards, or it ought to be.

Red and Blue are time agents, on opposite sides of a war to manipulate events towards their respective futures. That's not an original premise, but what these two authors do with it is.

I'm not familiar with much of Amar El-Mohtar's work, but I've read enough Max Gladstone to know that for me, he can be hit and miss. "A Kiss, With Teeth" is one of the best stories I've ever read; parts of his Craft Sequence, the series with the lawyer/sorcerers, are excellent, but parts, for me, were deeply disappointing (not least because the other parts were so good). I also knew he didn't shy away from the dark and gruesome, so I went into this book with trepidation.

There is dark, and there is gruesome; there is a lot of death, and the cotagonists are usually its instigators, which doesn't help me to identify with them. But the only slight disappointment in terms of writing craft, for me, was perhaps an inevitable one: even though these agents range across multiple timelines and planets in the course of the book, all of the references they use are to our particular timeline (just as, in Gladstone's Craft Sequence, he occasionally drops an undigested piece of this world into his very different setting, and it jars me).

Apart from that, it's frankly amazing. I stopped about halfway through and went and read some other things, mainly because I was afraid it had got as good as it was going to, and the last half was going to just fall apart. But no. It got better.

Red and Blue begin as enemies, but they become first rivals, then friends, of a sort, and then.... it just keeps getting more intense. They write to each other secretly, using their considerable powers and ingenuity to encode messages in everyday objects that fall into the other's hands. If either of their factions finds out, they're both dead. But their lives are inextricably entangled, and perhaps nobody else in all of time and space can understand them except each other.

The prose is beautiful, and well edited; it's powerfully poetic, full of heavily weighted imagery. The plot is complex (as time travel plots tend to be) and compelling. The characters themselves - I wouldn't want to meet them; I wouldn't want to be them; but their intensity and passion drew me in regardless.

This is, in short, a very fine book that richly deserves the many accolades that will be heaped upon it. It's something quite unusual in the realm of speculative fiction, something that very few authors could pull off anything like this well. As a reviewer, I read a lot of mediocre or by-the-numbers books; this is not, by any stretch, one of them. It's excellent.

I received a review copy via Netgalley.

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