Thursday 30 April 2020

Review: To Be Taught, If Fortunate

To Be Taught, If Fortunate To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When I read the SF of the late 1960s and early 1970s (I promise this will become relevant in a second), I notice the obsession with sex (particularly with multiple partners), drugs, and war - the preoccupations of the counterculture at the time. These topics haven't ceased to be important, of course, but they've ceased to be things that are very consciously in the foreground of most SF. I suspect that, in the period of the New Wave, you weren't taken seriously in certain circles if you didn't chuck in at least two out of three of those topics in a way that showed you were thinking about them really a lot, and that your thoughts were, for the time, radical.

Fifty years later, the topics have changed, but the performance has not. Now it's a diversity bingo card that you have to fill out, to show that you're thinking about race, gender, sexual orientation, and other aspects of identity (such as disability or class), and you're thinking about these topics in a particular way. Once those credentials are established, you can move on and tell your story, often without the characters' identity ever becoming relevant to how it unfolds.

I know that it's important to tell stories about people who just have these identities without the story being about that; representation matters, and just being able to see yourself in a character is sometimes enough. At the same time, this book feels like it takes a quick scene to establish that yes, this is a diverse crew; not only do their names suggest that their ethnic origin is African, Asian, European and probably Latina, but they are, respectively, asexual, trans, bi/pan/poly, and lesbian. And then, credentials established, the story moves on and is not only not about any of that, but is pretty much completely unaffected by any of it. Which, in itself, is perhaps signalling a future in which none of this is a big deal in any way. So I'm in two minds about whether it was just an exercise in box-checking, or a way of quietly allowing people with a wide range of identities to feel represented and then showing us a future in which nobody makes a fuss about any of that (which, I hope, is the future we're headed for).

Anyway, setting that aside: the story itself. Or rather, the lack of much story. One thing the author gets right that a lot of SF gets wrong is that the astronaut crew get on extremely well together; astronauts are carefully selected from people who play well with others, and trained to be part of a functional team that can disagree about things, even passionately, but then reach consensus with no hard feelings. That's what we see here. Unfortunately, part of the reason (apart perhaps from ignorance) that a lot of authors don't give us that is that more conflict makes for a more interesting story.

There is a very slow-burn arc here; it's not completely without a plot, though a good 95% of it could be summed up as, "So, hey, science is nifty," written for people who don't science much. The several planets the crew explores create different moods and experiences in them as individuals and as a crew, so we do get to see that, and the description is well done and engaging (which it needs to be, in order to keep our interest). And there is that very slow plot, as the messages from Earth reveal that things have gone extremely badly in the time the crew have been gone (mostly in suspended animation and time dilation). So badly, in fact, that I question the frequent description of this author's work as "optimistic". She's optimistic about small groups of people, true, but comes across as quite pessimistic about large groups and the fate of Earth as a whole. (Unduly pessimistic, I feel; the particular apocalyptic scenario used in this book - like most apocalyptic scenarios, frankly - is not, in reality, likely to be world-ending. The world is full of clever people who can bring us back from things like that.)

The whole, to me, doesn't quite add up to a story. It has its strengths, definitely; an engaging voice, an ensemble cast who ensemble well, wonderful descriptions, a philosophical point of view that's put across effectively, a bit of a tug at various heartstrings on the way. For me, though, it didn't completely work. And some parts of it I don't expect will age well.

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Tuesday 28 April 2020

Review: The Heirs of Locksley

The Heirs of Locksley The Heirs of Locksley by Carrie Vaughn
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I was disappointed in this one, mainly because I know the author is capable of writing much better stories than this.

It's very short, leaving little room for character development or plot, and there's not much of either. What plot there is relies entirely on two big coincidences, and I'm not at all a fan of having coincidence drive your plot.

The first coincidence has the form, if not the content, of a Convenient Eavesdrop: characters just happen to be in the right place at the right time to observe something significant. In this case it's not a conversation, but an event, in which they intervene (so there is some protagonism, at least).

The second coincidence is a completely random meeting with someone who's been previously mentioned. As soon as the person came on stage, it was obvious to me who it would be, even though there was no non-narrative-driven reason for it to be that person out of hundreds of others.

Not at all up to the author's usual standard. The first book was slightly disappointing, but at least had some moving moments; this does not. If there's a third, I won't bother with it.

I received a copy via Netgalley for review.

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Review: Shorefall

Shorefall Shorefall by Robert Jackson Bennett
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Well, that was scrumming spectacular.

I very much enjoyed the first in this series, even though the setting is more dystopian, and the body count higher, than I generally prefer. This second book is even better. You will definitely want to start with the first one, since it's essential backstory; in fact, I could have done with a few more reminders, since it's a little while since I read the first book and I'd forgotten a lot of the plot.

The magic system, in which "scrived" objects are convinced that the laws of physics are other than they are through what amounts to hacking the universe, is terrific, and reminds me of the best parts of the Eli Monpress series. Also like Monpress, it features an incredibly powerful and completely psychotic antagonist who must somehow be defeated by people who, on the face of it, are not equipped to do so, by means including clever heists, desperate fights, and committed teamwork by a collection of damaged and hurting characters whose hearts are nevertheless in the right place.

The over-the-top nature of the magic (and the corrupt merchant houses that largely control it) also reminds me of the best parts of Max Gladstone's books. And the spectacular set-pieces and the logical unfolding of the worldbuilding into plot and even character calls to mind the best of Brandon Sanderson.

At the heart of the book is some timely reflection (though when would it not be timely?) on using technology for connection with others rather than to gain power over them. It's not a new thought in SFF - there's something very similar in Sherri S. Tepper's Raising the Stones, for example - but it's one that bears repeating, and here it's well handled and important to the plot as well as the theme.

I have to say, I was hoping for a more upbeat ending. But this is clearly far from the end of the series, and I have to regard that as a good thing, even if it leaves our heroes in dire straits for now. Each of them has a chance to shine during the book, and an opportunity for self-sacrifice and personal growth, and they seize them with both hands. The good/evil divide is exactly where I think it should be: between the people who will sacrifice others to their vision of how the world should be (and coincidentally will end up on top if that vision is executed), and those who will sacrifice themselves for the common good and to do the right thing. And all of this is presented in capable prose with a minimum of stumbles.

Definitely one of the best books of 2020 for me.

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Thursday 23 April 2020

Review: Now, Then, and Everywhen

Now, Then, and Everywhen Now, Then, and Everywhen by Rysa Walker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Here's part of what I wrote about Timebound, Rysa Walker's first published novel:

'While it is set up as science fiction, the science doesn't bear close examination, particularly the genetic science. A single "genetic gift" just doesn't make you "good at computers" or predispose you to love a particular avocation, and I'm fairly sure the author misuses the genetic terms "dominant" and "recessive" as well. Nor is the logic of the time-travel devices and their limitations particularly consistent throughout the story. It's basically technology-as-magic, and genetic-gift-as-inherited-magical-gift. The idea that the time travel devices give off light that's seen in different colours by different individuals, and that those who can't use them can't see the light at all, makes no scientific sense, although it's a moderately cool idea. Basically, this is a fantasy given a superficially scientific-sounding skin.'

All of this is still applicable, minus the mention of "dominant" and "recessive" and plus a caution that intelligence, for example, is a) complex, b) almost impossible to define satisfactorily, c) much more influenced by environment than it is by genetics, and d) inasmuch as it is influenced by genetics, influenced by multiple genes, each of which is also likely to have other effects if you tweak it. For more on all of this, I recommend Superior: The Return of Race Science by Angela Saini, and the series of podcasts on "G" (general intelligence) from Radiolab.

So the genetics makes no sense whatsoever; best to just accept that and enjoy the ride. Because it is quite a ride, and (unlike some other time travel books I could mention), even if the author has little understanding of genetics, she's spent a good deal of effort on the history part. The action mostly takes place in the mid 1960s, around the civil rights movement, a Beatles tour of the US, and the KKK's response to these events. (While they used Lennon's "more popular than Jesus" comment, taken out of context, as a pretext, the KKK's dislike of the Beatles apparently had much more to do with their opposition to segregation.) I make the disclaimer that I don't have expert knowledge of this time period or these events, but I had the impression that the author had done her research thoroughly and thought about it deeply, and woven it into a strong story with characters who feel human and multidimensional. They're not always self-consistent - for example, the researcher with an expertise in gender studies, who is with a toxic narcissist of a boyfriend who uses all the classic belittling, projecting, and isolating tactics on her - but this is part of what makes them feel real.

Time travel always has the potential of becoming confusing, but I didn't feel confused. Both of the protagonists were interesting, and their plot threads intersected at what felt like the right time, neither too early nor too late. The tension, suspense, and action worked well for me as well, without ever becoming a dumb action movie. It's an intelligent book, but it's not over-impressed with its own intelligence, or trying to be too clever and ending up confusing and pretentious. The heroes set out to do the right thing at potential risk to themselves, while the villains set out to do what benefited them and didn't care about others bearing the cost, which is how I like my heroes and villains. The personal impact of events was handled well; too often, characters just carry on stoically despite terrible trauma, or accept perplexing or distressing events without apparent perplexity or distress, and this book avoids those traps, without becoming overly dramatic or angsty.

I picked this up in part because it's marketed as a new series, though in the same setting as her earlier time-travel books. I only read the first of those, not just because the science was nonsense, but because it hit a few too many well-worn YA tropes for my taste. This isn't as trope-ridden, isn't YA, and although the previous series was clearly a massive part of the background, I followed the story adequately even though I'd only read one of the previous books, and that six years ago.

Something that that first book and this book have in common is that they're well edited, which is refreshing to see. Not tripping over bad copy editing every few pages makes for a much smoother and more enjoyable read.

Overall, then, if you set aside the completely whack genetic science and just put it in mental brackets as a form of magic, this is a strong, well-written and enjoyable book, well above average for characters, storytelling, and copy editing. It thoroughly deserves a spot on my Best of the Year list.

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Friday 10 April 2020

Review: Or What You Will

Or What You Will Or What You Will by Jo Walton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The problem with very clever people is that they can be too clever by half. And the problem with really good writers is that they can become self-indulgent.

This book shows both those faults; it's metatextual and postmodern in a way that reminded me of John Barth (which, for me, is not a good thing). However, unlike Barth's plotless and inconclusive ramblings, it does have a reasonably complete arc (though the ending felt rushed), and I ultimately enjoyed it as well as respecting the level of craft on display.

The other main fault it has is taking left-over research from the author's previous book (Lent, set in Renaissance Florence) and presenting it as out-and-out infodumps direct to the reader from the narrator. The fact that they are interesting infodumps just saves them; for me, the same couldn't always be said for the extended descriptions of incidental parts of the setting.

The central conceit is that an author's muse/daemon/imaginary friend is trying to get her into her fictional world, because (we learn partway through) she's dying in the real world, and in the fictional world, people only die if they want to or if someone murders them.

The author character, Sylvia, is not (as I initially thought) the actual author of the book; she's about 20 years older than Jo Walton, and a Canadian of Irish descent rather than a Welshwoman. But part of the reason I thought she might be Jo Walton was the echoes of the previous Jo Walton book I'd read, Among Others, which is a fictionalization of Walton's adolescence. Both Mori in the latter book and Sylvia in this one have terrible, emotionally abusive mothers, and just as Mori refers to doing both parts of the dialog with the fairies (leading us to wonder if they're real or imaginary), the long-unnamed narrator daemon talks about Sylvia claiming that she used to do that with him.

There are several main strands to the book. One is the sequel to the fictional author's first series that the daemon instigates to provide her with a place of refuge; it's based on characters from Twelfth Night and The Tempest, and set in a largely Shakespearean version of Florence, but it also includes some historical figures and extra speculative elements. Another is the story of Sylvia's life, her abusive mother, her abusive first husband, her much-missed second husband, the decisions she made and the crises she had along the way that made her who she is. Then there are the daemon's metafictional maneuverings, which stitch the other two strands together, along with a generous helping of Fun Fiorenze Facts.

Like her Renaissance heroes, Walton has attempted something daring and difficult with great skill, and I feel she's largely pulled it off, though for me it wasn't an unqualified success. If you hate metafiction, or if infodumps (even interesting ones) put you off, this is not the book for you. But it shows emotional strength, keen observation of humanity, and a great love for both a place and a time, which largely make up for any flaws as far as I'm concerned.

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Monday 6 April 2020

Review: The Eye of Night

The Eye of Night The Eye of Night by Pauline J. Alama
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is going to rate very highly in my annual Year's Best list.

Bookbub's ad for it quoted Booklist as recommending it for fans of George R. R. Martin and Lois McMaster Bujold's The Curse of Chalion, so I wasn't sure whether I would like it or not; I strongly dislike Martin but love the Chalion novels deeply. Fortunately, it turned out to be more like the latter than the former.

I'm marking it as well-edited, with an asterisk: the ebook has apparently been scanned from a print book, and there are odd artifacts of the scanning process. For example, every time a sentence begins "Yet", there is a space before the "t". Mostly, though, it isn't bad, and there are only three or four typos apart from that. The language use is confident and capable throughout. Some reviewers are describing it as "wordy," but I didn't find it so, and I tend to be impatient with books that don't have much plot per thousand words, or bloated epic fantasies.

It's not just your standard epic fantasy, either. There are some tropes: a quest, an artifact of power, companions helping one another through it all, but the questers aren't your usual young blacksmith's apprentice who's secretly a prince. They're a merchant's son who joined a religious order after he was the sole survivor of a shipwreck that killed his whole family, and then became disillusioned before taking final vows; and a woman of no apparent consequence, small, her face distorted by old wounds, who is significant not because of who she secretly is but because of the choices she makes. They're both around 30.

There are meetings with people who seem kind and generous but aren't, or are only so conditionally, but also with people who actually are kind and generous. There are complex characters left and right, in fact, and certainly the central pair have a lot of depth to them. They aren't just a bunch of archetypes or stock characters.

And there's no delusion about being descended from nobility meaning that you have some kind of special claim on anything. The nobles are a scurvy lot, taken as a whole, and the simple people are much more worthwhile.

There are some heartwrenching decisions made selflessly, there's True Love, there are plot twists, there are realistic hardships on the journey. There's tension about what will happen next and if our heroes will make it through.

I thoroughly enjoyed it, and wish the author had written something else (longer than a short story) so I could immediately read it.

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