Sunday 28 June 2020

Review: Nucleation

Nucleation Nucleation by Kimberly Unger
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I found this gripping, a well-plotted nearish-future mystery in which the SF setting is integral.

Not your usual space opera, though large portions take place in space. Not your usual cyberpunk either, exactly. I mean, there's an evil corporation, but it's not the one the protagonist works for (that corporation is just kind of big and dumb but on the whole doing the right-ish thing, like real corporations, in my experience). And there's quite a bit of time spent, not in virtual reality, but embodied in remote robots using quantum entanglement, which was cool, even if I didn't completely buy every aspect of it all the time. At one point, there's only a single channel to use to the remote location, so the other characters are unable to communicate with the operator. Because her consciousness is so totally embodied in the remote that speaking to her through headphones wouldn't work; she wouldn't be able to hear them. That, to me, was implausible, though generally I found it easy to suspend my disbelief. There was a little bit of "your consciousness is so involved in the technological situation that a glitch in the tech can be dangerous to your brain," which I usually find hard to swallow, but here it was sold better than usual.

There are two mysteries. One is who the local bad actors are and what their deal is, and the other is: what, exactly, did the protagonist meet out there in space in the first chapter? Both of these mysteries progress through gradual revelation. I have to say, as an experienced consumer of fiction I found the foreshadowing a bit obvious, and was well ahead of the protagonist when it came to figuring out what was going on, particularly with the Earth-based mystery. But that's tricky to avoid, and I didn't feel it was done badly.

The writing mechanics are generally good, except that the author has a terrible comma-splicing habit and a tendency to hyphenate things she shouldn't, and uses all-caps instead of italics for emphasis. There are occasional errors of reference (pronouns not referring to what they should refer to, dangling modifiers). The pre-release version I saw from Netgalley also featured quite a few words dropped out of sentences (or left in after editing), some mispunctuated dialog, and some misplaced or missing apostrophes, but hopefully those will be fixed by publication. The quantity of all of these is not overwhelming, and a thorough edit would soon have it in good shape.

The characters are not nearly as hopeless, aimless, or alienated as is often the case with SF set in the relatively near future; the protagonist has a strong personal reason (eventually, more than one) to get to the bottom of the mystery, and it provides good direction and momentum to the plot.

Overall, a very decent SF suspense story, with a fresh premise well executed. I would read a sequel, and I'll look for more from this author.

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Wednesday 24 June 2020

Review: The Green Door

The Green Door The Green Door by Heather Kindt
My rating: 0 of 5 stars

DNF at 30%, for a number of reasons.

1. The punctuation is by Jackson Pollock, and there are quite a few other issues too (missing past perfect tense, homonym errors/eggcorns as basic as "your/you're"). Even an excellent editor would struggle to polish out all of them.

2. The worldbuilding is inconsistent. Of the talking animals, the cat is specifically stated to have no opposable thumbs - yet is somehow an herbalist - but the badgers and warthogs can shoot bows with great accuracy and no apparent issues. Somebody must have made the cat-sized clothes, so some of these animals can use sewing needles... it's not thought through.

3. The characters are showing strong signs of being Spoiled Protagonists, handed trust and help they haven't earned by people they've just met, who have no reason to give it to them except that they're the protagonists.

4. Apart from that, it's fairly average YA. Where I stopped, cliche was looming in the form of probably a love triangle.

No rating because DNF, but DNF because I could see it was going to be three stars.

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Wednesday 17 June 2020

Review: Annihilation Aria

Annihilation Aria Annihilation Aria by Michael R. Underwood
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I decided to give this author another chance, even though the previous book of his I'd reviewed ( Celebromancy ) had significant issues, because it also had signs of potential. He's written a number of books since then, and authors generally do improve with practice.

I gave that previous book three stars because, to me, the negatives and the positives balanced each other out. I considered advancing this one to four stars, because despite the fact that the same issues are still there, I did end up enjoying it towards the end, and there's still a lot of good stuff. But ultimately I decided that it doesn't quite make it to four stars. It's a higher three than Celebromancy, though.

It's frustrating to read a book by an author who clearly has some ability, but hasn't polished the book to be all it could be. I felt this with some of Max Gladstone's early novels, which showed tremendous imagination let down by some basic weaknesses. This book has the same problem, though it's not as vividly imaginative as Gladstone's.

There are some strengths, definitely. The biggest one for me was the fact that the main antagonist gets a viewpoint and becomes a relatable character; he's caught up in the system just as much as anyone. Even if he has a position of privilege relative to the protagonists, he's at the bottom of the heap as far as his own people are concerned. He really just wants to go home and be with his family. This was well done, and if everything else about the book had been at or near the same level, it could have been knocking on the door of five stars.

But it wasn't. I noted in my review of Celebromancy that it was full of continuity issues. That seems to be a problem for this author, because this book is riddled with them too. I read a pre-release version from Netgalley, and there's at least a slim chance that some will be fixed before publication (a little over a month away as I write), but they are numerous and pervasive, especially early on. A bit of exposition is given twice. A decisive moment in a scene happens twice. A character returning to Genos, the destroyed planet of her ancestors, wonders if she's the first of her people ever to do so, because "no stories of those returns survived in the diaspora", and then two pages later is reminiscing about multiple stories her mother told her of previous people who returned there.

The largest continuity issue, however, and the one that would be hardest to fix, because it leaves a plot hole regardless of which way you work it, is about the destruction of that planet. At the 58% mark, the nature of the planet-destroyer is revealed (I won't spoil that revelation here), and we're told that there were actually two weapons, one which destroyed the planet Atlan and was then hidden, and an inferior duplicate that was later used to destroy Genos because the Imperials didn't have access to the first one and had spent centuries coming up with an imitation. Later in the book, though, we're told that the same weapon was used to destroy both planets; it's part of what motivates a character.

Whichever version of the story you use, you have to explain why the Imperials don't still have the weapon used to destroy Genos (whether it's the original or the copy). And this isn't ever addressed. They just don't have the weapon.

Apart from the issues with continuity, and a remnant number of copy editing issues (vocabulary errors, apostrophe errors, mispunctuated dialog, dangling modifiers, lots of excess hyphens) which escaped despite the "meticulous" copy edits the author references in his acknowledgements and could possibly be fixed by publication time, there are other weaknesses which dropped the rating for me. The author also acknowledges an editor who pushed him; I don't think she pushed him hard enough, because a lot of the book is just bland. The worldbuilding is mostly bland, standard space opera stuff. The characters are bland, and there's not much to them that doesn't come either from their archetypes or their specific roles in the plot. The language is bland, unremarkable except where it glitches.

The author mentions at the end that the inspiration for the book was the movie Guardians of the Galaxy. But to me, a lot of what made Guardians of the Galaxy enjoyable is missing. It's not over the top; there are some sensawunda moments, but they're generic and, to me, forgettable. The characters are not a set of damaged loners who bicker and fight their way to eventual cohesion as a team in the face of a threat that brings out the best in their previously grungy characters; they're already a team at the start. The married couple (we're told repeatedly and shown occasionally) are devoted to one another. They only really have one argument in the entire book, which seems to be there to raise the tension during the only time they're separated, in a well-worn trope. They get on well with their pilot, too. They all have difficult backstories, which are all more to do with belonging to oppressed peoples than anything specific to them as individuals, but they seem to have coped well with their challenges and become functional adults. Which is great, but it's nothing like Guardians.

And the so-called "banter"; on a scale of zero to Whedon, it would barely shift the needle on the bantermeter. It's notably weak.

A few pop culture references are there, but they're more influences from earlier stories, and things like the female tomb raider of the couple being named Lhara. I don't know if John Carter was a conscious influence on Max (sole Earth-human character provided for means of audience identification, transported to space locale by mysterious means - in Max's case, an unexpected, one-way and apparently unique teleportation device discovered on an archaeological dig in Atlantean/ancient-alien ruins), but that's who he reminded me of. Though he's not a fighter at all, but very much an academic who leaves the fighting to his warrior wife.

I prefer it that these influences are subtle, but I'd also like to see something different, something fresh, done with them. The worst features of space opera are here: ridiculously short travel times (at one point, an interstellar trip that is specifically being made not in "warp space" takes 20 days; at another point, a distance specifically described as "light years" is going to be covered in hours, also outside warp space), lasers knock a ship into a spin, and gravity, when wielded as a weapon, is, apparently, purple and silver for cinematic purposes. Giant space turtles (with flippers, whatever those would do) drift on solar winds but cover interstellar distances also in compressed timeframes. But it doesn't have the zest and zing of, say, Tim Pratt's space operas, or - again - Guardians of the Galaxy. It's all pretty much by the numbers, except when it stumbles or fumbles.

Overall, then, while I can still see unrealized potential that could be brought out with more work and focus, this book fell short for me, and doesn't inspire me to read a sequel or others of the author's works.

I received a copy via Netgalley for review.

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