Monday 26 August 2019

Review: Buzz Kill: A Novel

Buzz Kill: A Novel Buzz Kill: A Novel by David Sosnowski
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was a difficult one to rate, and I finally went with my gut; the three-star rating partly reflects the fact that it was such a downer, which is not to my taste. (The title turned out to be accurate in a couple of ways that took me unpleasantly by surprise, though it's not like I wasn't warned at all; I just kept hoping it would turn out better than it was threatening to.)

I've read a few books now in the genre you might call "contemporary science fiction," as spawned by William Gibson of All Tomorrow's Parties, and they tend to have three flaws.

First, they're world-weary and cynical. This book is definitely those things, though it is at least witty about it.

Second, they tend to feature alienated losers wandering through a series of events without much in the way of goals, and therefore without much plot. For a long time - until about 45% - and with the "losers" part in brackets, I thought this book checked that box off as well, but the pair of protagonists do finally get a goal, or a pair of aligned goals. It is very much choked with exposition and high-flown prose, though, with long infodumps (either via a character or directly from the narrator) about artificial intelligence and various other topics. The explanations are plot-relevant, but there are an awful lot of them. I gained the impression that the author/narrator was a bit in love with the sound of his own voice.

The third flaw that many contemporary SF books share is the flaw that (according to Sturgeon) 90% of everything shares: they're crap, in the sense that the author has a poor grasp on the basic tools of writing like punctuation, sentence structure, and vocabulary, not to mention plot, characterisation and setting. This book has, I think, had extensive copy editing to remove most (though, in the review copy I got from Netgalley, not quite all) signs of those problems, and reads as better written than average. That would normally have kept it at four stars, but sustained cynicism and a tragic ending were not what I was hoping for, and when you spend almost the first half of the book waffling around with backstory and the characters feeling and thinking and experiencing a lot but doing very little, I will ding you for it.

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Review: The Dragon's Banker

The Dragon's Banker The Dragon's Banker by Scott Warren
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The author of this book set out to do something difficult - tell an interesting story about a merchant banker in a fantasy setting - and, in my view, achieved it. I kept wanting to get back to reading it, which is an excellent sign. It helps that the banker in question is atypically honest, and, despite his frequent protestations, generous to others.

It's a kind of riches-to-rags-to-riches story, though the rags are relative rather than absolute. For a long time, I was thinking it was going a bit too easily; the protagonist kept succeeding in whatever he attempted, and had a clever plan that looked as if it was going to come off without a hitch. I was still interested enough to keep reading, but I did wonder if there was going to be some more tension and conflict and challenge coming - and then there was plenty, and the plot took a series of twists, and overall I was very satisfied with the outcome.

I will mention a brief jarring moment, in which the protagonist has a drunken one-night stand with a junior employee. It felt out of place with the rest of the book.

I'll also mention that in the review copy supplied to me by Netgalley, it's obvious that the author is reaching well beyond his vocabulary, and often using words in senses that are either highly unusual or flat-out wrong.

The bonus story, while in dire need of basic copy editing (again, in the version I had; the published version may well be a lot better), I found genuinely amusing. It's the story of a fated Chosen One, the focus of dozens of mutually contradictory prophecies, who refuses the call so hard that he actually ends up succeeding in a completely unexpected way. It's not just tropes and silly names, but clever and well plotted, which I believe a comic story needs to be.

Definitely recommended, though I would like to see the author bring his knowledge of the basics of vocabulary and punctuation up closer to the level of his excellent plotting.

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Review: The Lawrence Watt-Evans Fantasy Megapack

The Lawrence Watt-Evans Fantasy Megapack The Lawrence Watt-Evans Fantasy Megapack by Lawrence Watt-Evans
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Some of the stories are a bit insubstantial, and some read more like scenes from novels than short stories (there is a difference, which writers who are mainly novelists don't always appreciate). And there is a bit more casual death and mayhem in a few of the early ones than I was looking for. But on the whole, amusing and entertaining.

The copy editing needs another run-through (minor scruffiness, nothing really big; OCR errors, missing minor words and the occasional dropped quotation mark, mainly) and the formatting and paragraph breaks are occasionally out, but it's not enough to be a dealbreaker for me.

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Friday 16 August 2019

Review: The Quantum Garden

The Quantum Garden The Quantum Garden by Derek K√ľnsken
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read the first in this series and enjoyed it, despite its frequent tragedies and challenging setting, so I requested this one from Netgalley. Thanks to the publisher for granting the request.

I found it easier to follow than the first, though like the first one, it does have a long series of events in which things get worse for the characters and they have to make terrible choices. Like the first, it ends with at least a hint of hope. Unlike the first, it doesn't really incorporate a heist.

It's a complex setting, with several kinds of genetically engineered posthuman, AIs, time travel, quantum effects and aliens. It's not just your generic paint-by-numbers space opera, for sure. As well, it's a powerful emotional story about people having their deepest beliefs about themselves and their lives challenged and having to come to terms with their responsibility for terrible consequences of their actions.

If that's something you're looking for, I recommend it highly; it's done with a good deal of skill.

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Sunday 11 August 2019

Review: Chasing the Shadows

Chasing the Shadows Chasing the Shadows by Maria V. Snyder
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've come to the conclusion that these books aren't so much science fiction as fantasy with some SF trappings (aliens, spaceships, planets). It's lampshaded that the laws of physics are not being well observed here, plus the main character is developing what I can only call a psychic connection to the self-aware cyberspace known as the Q-Net. It very nearly got onto my "SF-with-bad-science" shelf, but I don't think the unscientific bits are a result of ignorance (as in the other books on that shelf); they're deliberate.

Somehow, I liked the main character, despite the fact that she's a bit of a perfect Chosen One. I can see why everyone else finds her irritating, since she keeps being right about things and has basically superpowers. She gets away with this for me because of her self-deprecation, even if she claims not to be sensible and is, in fact, extremely sensible, accepting necessary limitations without irrational teenage rebellion, and taking all of her risks for good reasons.

Despite the flawed science and flawless heroine, I did enjoy this, and intend to keep reading the series. I like the voice, I like the mystery, I like the fact that it isn't just the same old thing reheated once again, and I want to see where it goes from here.

I received a review copy via Netgalley.

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Tuesday 6 August 2019

Review: Stone Unturned: A Legend of Ethshar

Stone Unturned: A Legend of Ethshar Stone Unturned: A Legend of Ethshar by Lawrence Watt-Evans
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Right up my alley: a book full of magic-users, with a (main) protagonist who's simply motivated by doing the right thing, because he's a good person.

The author describes this series as "light-hearted," and if by that he means "not dark and tragic and full of angst" then I endorse that description. It's refreshing to have sword-and-sorcery tales that aren't packed with antiheroes, and I will be checking out the rest of this series (which consists mostly of standalones that can be read out of order).

The setting was originally developed for a game, and the magic-users show their D&D roots, though not to excess. (Mainly it's the names of the spells.)

There are three storylines, with different viewpoint characters, starting in different times, and they eventually merge in pretty much the ways I'd expected. The main plot ends up escalating to stopping a villain, and the solution they come up with for both the villain's scheme and one of the other main story problems is, again, something I saw coming. But the predictability didn't dent my enjoyment much.

Slightly scruffy in the copy editing, with a few missing words and misplaced quotation marks, a continuity error and a homonym slip, but the issues are not constant, and most of them are not too egregious.

On the whole, an enjoyable palate cleanser for more serious books, fun and full of action but not lacking a brain.

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Review: Chasing Solace

Chasing Solace Chasing Solace by Karl Drinkwater
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A compelling, suspenseful story of survival and quest.

The author writes horror, and this does have some horror aspects - most of the book is the protagonist making her way through a deserted spaceship that's an abbatoir, with all of the disgusting fluids, sinister tools, and reminders of industrial-scale suffering that implies. Plus monsters trying to eat her face.

I'm not a horror reader at all, but to me, this didn't end up being offputting. It was mitigated by the fact that the protagonist was sealed away from all the gunk in an environment suit, and that she'd survived a similar trip in the previous book and looked certain to survive this one. There was still plenty of suspense and action, well paced.

The character had a clear goal (find her way to her missing sister), and worked steadily and bravely towards it, while her resources, weapons, and tools were gradually used up or lost. The chapter numbering is in reverse order, which provided a kind of countdown that, for me, helped to give a sense of momentum and urgency.

Importantly, the protagonist isn't without someone to talk to: the AI from her ship. This gives another layer of relationship to the story, and helps us come to know the protagonist better, while still leaving her battling physically alone.

There are, near the end, some genuinely alien-seeming aliens in a genuinely alien-feeling setting, which is hard to do and, here, is well done.

I wouldn't recommend reading this one without having read the first in the series; there's no real recap or backstory feed, and a lot of it will make no sense if you start here. But if you enjoyed the first book, for my money this is even better, and the first one was already good.

Disclaimer: The author gave me a review copy (and no other inducement) because I'd reviewed the first book. I don't normally do reviews by author request, but in this case I'd enjoyed Book 1, so I made an exception - and I didn't regret it.

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Review: Turning Darkness Into Light

Turning Darkness Into Light Turning Darkness Into Light by Marie Brennan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've only read one and a bit of the Lady Trent series, having bounced off the uneven pacing of the second book. But I knew the author to be very skilled, not only from reading some of her work but from interacting with her on a writers' forum we both belong to, so when I saw that this one had a new character in the same setting (a couple of generations later), and a premise that sounded promising in terms of a compelling story with strong stakes and sustained tension, I requested it from Netgalley. Thanks to the publisher for granting the request.

I wasn't disappointed, either. It starts out, like the Lady Trent stories, focused on the scholarship, but even at the beginning there are strong hints of why the outcome of the protagonist's efforts to translate an ancient text are going to be politically important. As the story goes on, it becomes more and more clear that there's something dodgy going on, and the action ramps up rapidly. Throughout, there are a series of interactions between the protagonist and her former love interest that develop the complexities of that relationship in a way I've seldom seen achieved.

It's presented through a series of documents - journals, letters, police reports, the translation that lies at the heart of the story - and that's well done, though I did stumble a little when I realized that the very confessional, diary-like tone of one piece was actually still part of a witness statement made to the police. It was the sole misstep I noticed in the epistolary part of the book, and since it's lampshaded, was probably intentional.

The other thing I stumbled over a little was the worldbuilding. My personal philosophy is that if you choose to create a world that's not our world, rather than just have a version of our world with (say) dragons in it, it shouldn't resemble our world too closely (or what's the point of the difference)? This world sometimes resembles ours too closely, with countries that I mentally dubbed MightAsWellBeEngland, MightAsWellBeChina and MightAsWellBeIndia.

Apart from that, which is really just a philosophical difference, I enjoyed this very much. The sentence-level writing is excellent, the pacing good, the plot compelling, the characters and their relationships more complex and messy and (hence) realistic than I usually see. It easily makes my Best of 2019 list.

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