Tuesday 22 October 2019

Review: The Spirit Siphon

The Spirit Siphon The Spirit Siphon by Ben S. Dobson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'm enjoying this series, though I still haven't found any of the subsequent books as good as the first one. This one, in particular, seems a little short on tension; I'm not sure why, because the situation (trying not to start a war while tracking down an old adversary) has plenty of tension built in. Perhaps it's that the characters never seem to make much progress on anything. They find things out, the situation complicates, they even confront the adversary, but they don't really succeed at much, and while not succeeding complicates their lives a bit, I didn't get the sense of a powerful downward spiral (followed by last-minute triumph against the odds) that an action-oriented book like this needs.

It feels very much like a transitional book, inserted to move the characters from one situation to another, rather than being a complete adventure in itself.

The half-orc character's zest for life is still on display, but not as much (and that's one of the best aspects of the series, for me). Nor is her human partner's cleverness and ability to defeat mages by getting inside their heads.

All in all, not the best entry in what is still an enjoyable series.

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Review: The Glass Magician

The Glass Magician The Glass Magician by Caroline Stevermer
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is an experienced author, and it shows in the smooth and assured writing. Unlike most period pieces, it isn't full of obvious anachronisms (with an exception I'll mention later) or regrettable vocabulary glitches. However, the plot, the characters, and especially the setting all fell a bit short of excellence for me.

There's nothing really wrong with the plot. It's more or less mystery with a chance of romance, though there's a dash of coming-of-age in there as well. The protagonist must deal with the discovery that she isn't who she thought she was, that her family situation is not as she's been told, and that her mentor isn't who she thought he was either. Meanwhile, she's prevented from working as a stage magician, which brings a brief threat of economic difficulties, quickly averted. She ends up the house guest of a man who both attracts and annoys her, caught up in the murder of a rival magician, and under threat from what amounts to a force of nature because of her newly discovered identity.

It's probably a bit too much for a book this length, and some of the elements don't really get the development they need. The denouement to the mystery is a painfully awkward attempt at a villain reveal which, rather against the odds given how badly it's done, succeeds in flushing out the murderer. The pursued-by-manticores plot at least has a level of tension that's largely missing elsewhere. There are a few conflicts ("I must clear my mentor's name, but doing so risks my life") set up by the interweaving plots. It's not outstanding, but it will do.

The characters are all right. There's nothing really wrong with them either. They're not complete cardboard cutouts or straight out of central casting, not quite. But they don't have an uncommon amount of individuality or depth either. You can describe each of them in a phrase (the rich young man, the rich young man's dilettante sister, the mentor, the monster hunter, the Romany magic shop proprietor, the landlady) and there's not a lot to add to that brief capsule description. The protagonist and viewpoint character has the most to her, of course, and she does develop and change in the course of the story.

There were a couple of things about the setting that tripped me up and challenged my suspension of disbelief. We're in an alternate 1905, similar to our own 1905 in many ways (including some prominent people), but different in many other ways. Firstly, as well as baseline humans ("Solitaires") there are shifters ("Traders") and people who have some kind of nature affinity that's never really made completely clear ("Sylvestri"). The three can interbreed. In order to shift forms, you have to be a Trader on both sides of your family, but if Traders intermarry too much they produce manticores, monsters that can shift into apparent human form in order to stalk young Traders who are not yet in full control of their shifts and eat their magic, killing them in the process.

For some reason that is never made clear, pretty much everyone who is prominent and successful is a Trader, and vice versa. The lack of an explanation for this was one of the things that tripped me up. I couldn't figure out a history in which the ability to turn into an animal (and the loss of human thought and memory beginning around the age of 70) translated automatically into becoming rich and powerful. Several of the actual historical figures mentioned are Traders, and the impression one gets is that nobody can just rise to prominence on their talents (as some of those people did in our reality); they have to be a Trader. Why?

Most Native Americans are Sylvestri, and they have a treaty with the other Sylvestri that has kept the centre of the North American continent theirs, while the coasts are apparently colonised - both seem to be part of the United States, though that isn't said explicitly - and a railway runs between the two. Again, this seems unlikely; it doesn't play a big role in the plot, except that the Sylvestri ambassador is a minor character. (He is stationed in New York. Is New York the capital, then? Ambassadors are posted to capitals, consuls are posted to non-capitals.) And yet the Gilded Age is in full swing on the Eastern seaboard, unsupported by the resources of the central US. (The wealthy in the real Gilded Age often had extensive holdings in those central states.)

It's hard to resist the idea that Native American sovereignty over a large portion of their land is simply something the author put in because she thought it should be that way, especially given other indications. There are black people in this alternate world, but they have a much higher status than was the case in our 1905 (40 years after the Civil War, let's not forget); a black woman is a prominent lawyer, and two other black women form two-thirds of the influential Board of Trade, who rule on certain important Trader matters. (The status of women seems a little higher, too.) Race is something that's constantly highlighted; the viewpoint character is a white woman, yet every person she meets, most of whom are white, is described by their race as well as whether they're Solitaire, Trader, or Sylvestri (which she generally seems to be able to tell as easily as their ethnicity). I'm not a conservative person and am mostly sympathetic to liberal viewpoints, but this does read to me like conspicuous 21st-century white liberalism projected intrusively onto an earlier age.

Overall, then, I found this book fell short of being fully satisfying. The plot, while servicable, lacked the momentum it could have had, and the mystery resolution was painfully bad; the characters stuck mostly to type; and there were, for me, big holes in the worldbuilding that distracted me from the story.

I received a copy via Netgalley for purposes of review.

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Review: Max and the Multiverse

Max and the Multiverse Max and the Multiverse by Zachry Wheeler
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Max is basically the epitome of why I hesitate to read books with male protagonists these days. He is an arrogant, ignorant, aimless slacker, completely oblivious to how his life is made easy for him by the work of people he despises (including his parents, whose role in the story consists entirely of their absence). The narrative voice manages to add more ignorance (of the complex role of religion in the development of society and technology; of the religious origin of names like "Veronica" - the AI in the non-religious utopia; of how you need a whole society, not just an intellectual elite, for anything to function), and contempt, notably for fat people, "stupid" people, and religious people - who are equated with stupid people. The descriptions of the space lesbians having amorous interludes are creepily enthusiastic. It's no wonder that he several times depicts people in service professions being rude to the protagonist because of how annoyingly ignorant and boorish he is; most of us have not had that experience, but I wouldn't be surprised if the author had.

Though most (not all) of the sentences are punctuated correctly, if one ignores the interrobangs, far too many of them have words accidentally left out; there is a profusion of dangling modifiers; and the author affects a high-flown vocabulary and several times stumbles over it. "Don", for example, means "put on clothing" (it was originally "do on"); it does not mean to wear clothing. It's used incorrectly four times and, oddly, correctly once. "Visage" means face, not sight. The prose has an unfortunate tendency in a purplish direction, overall, which eventually becomes wearing.

Part of the schtick, which is important early on but loses all relevance later, is that Max shifts universes when he falls asleep. But, as often happens in alternate-world novels, the most arbitrary things about his life, the things that are most likely to change - his very existence, his address, his cat, the identity of his girlfriend, his parents happening to be absent - are exactly the things that remain constant. Events even flow from universe to universe, so he breaks up with his girlfriend in one universe and in the next universe that was also something that happened, even though so much else has changed.

In the end, the multiverse shifting has absolutely no relevance to the plot whatsoever, except that it enables Max to get into space (in an advanced utopian version of the world that changed completely 20,000 years earlier and yet still somehow has Max in it). Space in an alternate universe is astonishingly like contemporary America, but with funnier-looking people and the usual whiz-bang technological furniture space adventures tend to share. It's lacking in imagination; it may be intended as part of the satire, but satire needs to be a bit more... satirical than this.

I promised myself that if the mediocre white guy ended up sleeping with the space lesbians essentially because he was the mediocre white guy, I would ding it another star, but happily that didn't happen. I should probably ding it half a star for the fact that he saved the day in the crucial moment when the otherwise competent women were helpless, and did so by pretending he was sleeping with the space lesbians and making them act like brainless bimbos. So it's two and a half stars, rounded up to three. But I will definitely not be reading another book in the series or another book by this author.

The cat was good, though.

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Review: One Blood

One Blood One Blood by Sabrina Chase
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read the first of the series some years ago, but there was enough reminder/backstory stuff to catch me up without having to refresh myself.

I remember the first book as being very well edited; this one has a few minor glitches, mostly apostrophes and commas, but for the most part it's smooth and even, and I could relax into it without being constantly irritated by the copy editing.

It's an enjoyable ensemble-cast adventure. The "it's us humans together against the alien Other" premise rings a little old-fashioned to me, but it's far from the worst take I've seen on it, and there are plenty of hints that the Earth-humans, at least, have a slightly more sophisticated take on war than that. The military background of several of the characters came across to me as convincing (I have not served in the military, though, so take that for what it's worth). There's lots of winning hearts and minds and clever problem-solving, as well as a smaller amount of blowing stuff up, which works for me as a balance.

The characters, including the non-Earth-human ones, are easily distinguishable, and the two main characters in particular, the military leader and the suddenly-superpowered geek, have some depth and heft to them. I believed and enjoyed their strong personal relationship, too.

Extra points for a cat, as always.

It's good enough that I'll consider adding it to my Best of the Year, though not so good that it's going on that list automatically. Definitely a strong four stars, but it lacks that extra depth or something outstanding that would take it to five.

I'll read the third in the trilogy, though, for sure.

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