Friday 29 May 2020

Review: Kitra

Kitra Kitra by Gideon Marcus
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Initially, I couldn't help comparing this with my friend Lisa Cohen's Derelict . Youthful crew, led by a young woman, take off in an old military ship and find there's an issue with it that sends it off into space; they have to work together to get home.

It's not very similar to Derelict apart from that premise, though. The Derelict crew don't intend to be a crew, and have a lot more personal and interpersonal issues. Their biggest challenge in getting home is learning to work as a team, not just the bare fact of the situation itself. And the gender distribution of roles is different: in Derelict, the young woman who leads the crew is also an engineer, and the biologist is male, whereas here the technical work is done by the men and the biology (but also the captaining) is done by the women.

The other space opera that this reminds me of is The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet , because the crew is much more at that end of the at-each-other's-throats/working-together-as-a-team spectrum. It isn't as quirky, though, and there's a bit more of a plot.

Kitra gets big points from me for one thing in particular: fuel. In so many space operas, the issue of fuel is completely ignored. The rag-tag crew of outcasts in their battered old spacecraft fly hither and yon around solar systems in remarkably short amounts of time, repeatedly landing on planets and taking off again, and they never seem to need to refuel. That's not the case here; in fact, a shortage of fuel is a major plot driver. I did question whether the capacitors were realistic in terms of energy storage density, but I'm willing to give that a pass, given how well the rest of the story was written.

There are moments of triumph, moments of despair, interpersonal moments (though the flirting never comes to anything), moments of brilliant solutions to seemingly intractable problems, moments of courage in the face of the odds. It's emotionally satisfying without being (too) scientifically implausible. I found it well paced, too, with a good mixture of "everything is going great, we're going to achieve our dreams" and "oh, crap, we're all going to die".

Recommended, and I will be watching for more in the series.

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Monday 25 May 2020

Review: Haunted Heroine

Haunted Heroine Haunted Heroine by Sarah Kuhn
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read and very much enjoyed the first in the series, and although I haven't read the second and third, I had no trouble following this one.

I noted about the first book that all the characters have a lot of issues, but they are, at least, mostly aware of them and committed to working on them. Three books further on, they've clearly done a lot of that, but there's still work to do, and Evie working on her issues is in fact the central focus of this book.

Although it's technically a supers book, if you're after old-school superpowered battles and banter and costumes this is not the place to look for it. There's a bit of each of those (especially costumes, though largely of the Halloween variety), but it's more a character-driven than a plot-driven book. There's definitely a plot - a mystery plot, in fact - but the important part is not so much solving the mystery as how the process of working on solving the mystery is also a process of Evie dealing with issues from her past, and Evie (and others under her mentorship) learning to be confident, appropriately angry, and self-nurturing.

Most of these people are young women of colour, and I am none of those three things; I suspect if I was, the book would get a fifth star. I didn't find it preachy or too much of a performance of contemporary expected opinions; it came across as authentic, and I'm sure will be very powerful for its intended audience. I also didn't object to the portrayal of the privileged, entitled white guy; he's a type that exists, in distressingly large numbers. I've read books by him, in fact, though these days I try not to.

Overall, recommended, including for people who are not dead centre of its target demographic, because I think we all need to hear these conversations being had - even if our contribution to them is to shut up and listen for a change.

I received a review copy via Netgalley.

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Thursday 21 May 2020

Review: Baba Ali and the Clockwork Djinn: A Steampunk Faerie Tale

Baba Ali and the Clockwork Djinn: A Steampunk Faerie Tale Baba Ali and the Clockwork Djinn: A Steampunk Faerie Tale by Danielle Ackley-McPhail
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A steampunk version of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. The authors have taken some trouble to incorporate key features of the original (like the thieves hiding in the oil jars), but give them twists which feel organic to the setup.

Features a curmudgeonly Charles Babbage in a mentor role, and I thought that worked well. The main character, Ali, is sent to England to be Babbage's apprentice because of his talent as a tinkerer. Then he has to return to his home to deal with family stuff, and both his envious, devious, covetous brother and the sinister leader of the thieves want things from him that he doesn't know he has, and an adventurous time is had by all.

I remember Ali Baba as being a bit of a schemer and a trickster, albeit very much guided and directed by the jinni, and this Ali is not. He's a pious, good-hearted man who really just wants a quiet life making clever devices, but can't stand by and see injustice perpetrated. I liked that, despite the fact that he's generally a good person who makes right choices, the chief of the thieves almost bests him by playing on a character weakness: his pride in his tinkering.

There's a thread of romance that, for me, seemed a little under-developed, but given the setup it couldn't exactly have a slow build or many of the usual steps of a romance.

The characters have at least a little depth to them; the brother's wife, in particular, is abused wife AND schemer AND competent businesswoman, not just one of the three. The leader of the thieves is a bit inclined to execute his men for failure, presumably to encourage the others, but he's a suitably dastardly (if somewhat over-the-top) villain for the purposes of the plot, and the brother is an adequate minor antagonist.

The steampunk devices are fun and imaginative, if implausible, which is all you can really ask for.

The usual steampunk curse of incorrect vocabulary usage is, happily, notable by its absence, perhaps because the narrative voice is quite simple; but in the pre-release version I read from Netgalley, the commas are a huge mess that will take a lot of work to sort out (and they may not get it).

Overall, an entertaining retelling of a classic story that respects the original but takes it to some new and interesting places.

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Tuesday 12 May 2020

Review: Spellbreaker

Spellbreaker Spellbreaker by Charlie N. Holmberg
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I decided to give this author another chance, even though she put a tyre swing in the 1870s in The Paper Magician .

The late-Victorian language isn't quite idiomatic, and a tradesperson's assistant coming to the front door of a manor house would be a huge social error in this period, so the author is still not really getting historical fantasy quite right. But the story is well enough told that I can mostly overlook this; there was nothing as glaringly anachronistic as the tyre swing, and the plot and characters were capably handled and engaging.

The world is an interesting one, where some people have magical ability, but in order to harness it they must train through a guild system and go through expensive rites - so, apart from a few scholarship cases (who rise to wealth through their abilities), the people on the top of the heap are mostly the people who were already on the top of the heap. Also, mostly men.

This is a familiar scenario, no less relevant today than in the 1890s, even though the class system has ostensibly changed a great deal since then. Thrown into the mix, though, is spellbreaking - a talent that crops up in all sorts of people and doesn't require expensive training or initiations. Of course, spellbreakers are supposed to be registered, and there are ferocious penalties for those who aren't, since they have potential to undermine the whole system; but our heroine is an unregistered spellbreaker, rescued from the workhouse as a child by a mysterious group she calls "the Cowls" because of how they dress, and given covert assignments to stick it to the Man by breaking spells as the Cowls direct. She sees herself as a Robin Hood figure, and while she has to maintain her cover, so far that's not been too much of a problem in the scheme of things. (She has what I think of as a "superhero job" - supposedly demanding, but actually gives her plenty of time to participate in the plot. This gets explained eventually, though, so it's not as tropey as I thought at first.)

Only now the Cowls are calling on her more, and then she gets caught by a spellcaster who has his own troubles, and their lives become more intertwined, and then her view of the world and what's going on is challenged, and things end up becoming very exciting indeed. While there's plenty of resolution and I wouldn't call the ending a cliffhanger, it does very much lead on to the sequel.

The very slow-burn romance is between two appealing people who have believable issues that are not down to character flaws, but backstory. The minor characters have a bit of individuality. The world is full of potential, though it somehow doesn't quite feel different enough given the magic level; it's as if the author has mostly thought through the parts of the magic that are directly relevant to the plot.

Overall, with a couple of minor reservations, I enjoyed this very much, and it will be on my 2020 Best of the Year list. It's encouraged me to consider others of the author's books (and I definitely want to read the sequel), even though there were significant issues with her first book that almost put me off her permanently.

I received a copy via Netgalley for review.

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Wednesday 6 May 2020

Review: Shadow in the Empire of Light

Shadow in the Empire of Light Shadow in the Empire of Light by Jane Routley
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This isn't at all a bad book, but it does have flaws. It could be tighter, could be tidier, and could be clearer. The worldbuilding, while not straight out of a well-used cookie cutter, is not extensive; the viewpoint character, while she isn't completely passive, gets rescued quite a bit, and doesn't seem to achieve all that much. The plot has a lot of threads, but they don't form a whole greater than the sum of its parts. There are gestures at romance for the main character, but the gestures go in several different directions and never amount to much in the long term (though there is one explicit scene).

It also features one of my pet peeves, which is biblical names in a setting in which Christianity is decidedly not present; it always suggests to me that the author has not thought things through.

In terms of the story: Shine, the main character, is part of a large family all with names that have to do with light in some way (though some of them have add-ons, like Blazeann or Sparklea, most are along the lines of Radiance or Gleam). They're a cadet branch of the imperial family in a nation that I at first thought was based on ancient China, because of its tendency to self-isolate and refer to pale-skinned foreigners as "ghosts". As the book progressed, though, it became clear that if China was an influence, it was only one influence, and a good bit of the setup was out of the author's head (which I approve of; taking an entire fantasy society from a superficial impression of a real historical society always seems lazy to me).

The family are, on the whole, pretty nasty, with a few exceptions, and even the exceptions are still mostly entitled aristocrats with a tendency to indulge themselves in drug-taking and sex. You become an aristocrat by being a mage, and mages, rather than using their powers for useful things like building bridges or clearing agricultural land, apparently leave all of that to the peasants to do by hand, and mainly use their (primarily psychokinetic) powers recreationally.

Shine's aunt, who raised her, is, at least, a radical thinker who thinks the peasants should be, you know, paid for their work rather than made to work on the nobles' land as a form of taxation, and educated, and so forth. But she and Shine are "mundanes," non-mages, who are therefore only gentry, not nobility, and have little status in the family (though considerably more than the peasants outside it, which Shine is at least uncomfortable about).

Multiple and mostly non-intersecting plots are under way in and around the family, as they come to the country estate that Shine and her aunt manage for an annual fertility ceremony. Shine gets involved in all of the plots one way or another, but isn't especially effectual. At one point, she finds out (through Convenient Eavesdrop, which is a plot device I hate) that two family members are planning to sabotage the matriarch's drug stash so that she's incapacitated and loses face; she attempts to foil the plot, but (view spoiler). Later, while she does take effective action once against an enemy, she and her companions keep getting into dire straits and then getting cavalry-rescued unexpectedly (this happens three times in quick succession). Eventually, all of the plot lines wrap up, mostly not very conclusively, with minimal help from Shine, and in a way that reveals they were never all that connected in the first place.

I made a note partway through that I didn't feel like the author had the chops to achieve a really satisfactory ending, and reflecting on the ending, I think I was right. Overall, the book feels undercooked. The middle does plenty of development of lots of different things, but they never come together, and the main character is caught up in events more than she drives them. The worldbuilding is underwhelming, and yet I found myself confused more than once about how things worked.

I have to say that I picked up the book in large part because it had a telepathic cat in it, and I've been a sucker for telepathic cats ever since I read Andre Norton's Forerunner books at the age of about 11 or 12. The telepathic cat could have been more utilized, but overall, she was a good one, even if her name (Katti) was distinctly unimaginative.

I received a copy via Netgalley for review.

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