Wednesday 30 September 2020

Review: Super Humans

Super Humans Super Humans by T.M. Franklin
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was competently written (including good copy editing, which is rarer than it should be). I'm only giving it three stars, though, because there's nothing much else outstanding about it, and it's not a complete, satisfying story in itself.

I wondered why a new viewpoint character got introduced at the 60% mark, when normally you would introduce all your key characters and their conflicts by 25% through the book. When I got to the end, I realized that this is the setup for a series, and is essentially Act I of the story that is (presumably) told in that series. The whole book is the first 25% (or so) of a complete story, and it's clear by the end that we have several more characters to come yet, so maybe it's not even all of Act I.

The characters were OK, but didn't have an outstanding amount of depth to them. The threat they faced was mostly vague and generic. In general, it needed to grab me a lot harder in order to keep me reading, if it wasn't going to give me the satisfaction of a fully resolved plot arc.

It was OK. But I wanted something more than that.

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Monday 28 September 2020

Review: Windsinger

Windsinger Windsinger by A.F.E. Smith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The third Darkhaven novel keeps up the standard of the previous two, and also keeps up the level of tension, conflict, and really bad things happening. The central characters are thoroughly decent people in a world where that is not particularly the norm, making it easy to cheer for them. Although they're dedicated, skilled, and in one case extraordinarily powerful, they're not always able to protect those they care about, particularly against the cynical manipulation of antagonists who will use people's love for others as a way to threaten them into compliance and complicity with their schemes.

It's an interesting world, the stories are well told, the prose is good, the tone is (overall) hopeful, and all these things mean I can stand a bit more darkness in the plot than is usually to my taste.

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Review: Liberty Justice for All: A Marvel: Xavier's Institute Novel

Liberty  Justice for All: A Marvel: Xavier's Institute Novel Liberty Justice for All: A Marvel: Xavier's Institute Novel by Carrie Harris
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Tie-in novels, novelizations of movies, and so forth are all too often hack-work, poorly edited and relying on coincidence, cliche, and the popularity of the franchise to carry off a mediocre story. Happily, this X-Men novel does not fit any of those stereotypes. While strongly tied into the lore of the long-running Marvel franchise, it's mostly fresh, well executed, and gives some depth to the characters and their relationships. There are some gaping plot holes, but for me they didn't spoil my enjoyment too much.

The protagonists are two new recruits to the New Xavier School, run by Cyclops in the wilds of Canada. We first get some scenes with their roommates and other classmates and teachers that establish not only their powers, but that they are emotionally intelligent, keen to help others, able to take effective action, and more sensible and mature than some of their peers. They're college age, but read more YA than new adult.

Sent off on a training exercise in the X-Copter, they pick up a distress call from the infamous mercenary Sabretooth, and decide to help him. This was the weakest part of the story for me. Not only is there never any explanation of how Sabretooth was able to radio them, but the stupid decision they make to ditch their training mission, not tell their seniors, and help someone untrustworthy with an unknown danger is distinctly out of character for them. Unfortunately, it's also necessary in order for the plot to exist.

Bad decision made, the action moves swiftly, and they encounter hostile police (until they inexplicably stop encountering police where I would have expected them); Sentinels; a dangerous magical artefact reminiscent of Night at the Museum which can kill the living and resurrect the dead (including, apparently, models of the dead such as Neanderthals, who are stereotypically dumb cavemen communicating in grunts); and a powerful enemy they've previously encountered in backstory, who they're terrified of. Throughout, they manage to be courageous, mostly effective, clever, and committed to doing the right thing, and it was this, and the well-handled dynamics between and within the characters, that kept the book its fourth star for me despite the handwaving of some key plot points. All the characters, even a couple of the minor ones, come across as complex people, not flat stereotypes, and the main characters experience satisfying development throughout.

It's a pleasure, too, to get a book from Netgalley that isn't full of basic editing issues. Kudos to the author and copy editor.

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Friday 4 September 2020

Review: Corpselight

Corpselight Corpselight by Angela Slatter
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I gave 5 stars to Vigil, the first in this series, because I felt it took the "kickass supernatural PI" genre into a higher key with its focus on family and relationships (of widely varying types).

This book has many of the same strengths, but also at least one of the same weaknesses and a couple of (I think) new ones, so it didn't quite make it to 5 stars - though it still makes my 2020 Best Of shelf.

Finding myself short of good books, I decided to look for sequels to books I'd enjoyed in previous years, and was glad to find this one. There's plenty of action and plenty of heart, and it's delivered in sound prose - but with a few minor typos that I don't recall seeing in the first book. That's weakness number 1.

Weakness number 2 is, for me, the big one. It's the way in which the main character's male partner - who I characterised as a genderflipped damsel in distress in my review of the first book - is now a genderflip of the wife who has no role other than to be supportive to the hero. He doesn't pass a reverse Mako Mori test; he has no arc of his own, no agenda of his own, even. He's there to look after the baby and do emotional work on behalf of the protagonist so that she can go out and kick ass, and he embraces this fate with barely a complaint. He's a solution, never a problem (though, of course, he's also a vulnerability, at risk of refrigeration). I don't like this when the genders are the other way round, so I don't see why I should approve of it in this instance.

Noticing this completely supportive character got me noticing how all the rest of the supporting cast are also so very supporting, how it's all about the protag, to the degree that she's almost (not quite) a Spoiled Protagonist. (That's my term for someone who gets handed help she hasn't earned just because she's the protagonist. In this case, she's arguably earned it, but it does seem like she gets an awful lot of it.) I love an ensemble cast, but this is not one; it's a hero and her support team, and because it's all about her, she's the only character who ends up with much depth.

Weakness number 3, which often goes along with a spoiled protagonist, is that there are a couple of convenient coincidences; the person being investigated has two other, apparently completely random, connections to the main character, and while this helps drive the plot and raise the stakes, I am never a fan of putting coincidence where protagonist effort should be.

Once again, though, the thematic subtext of the book saves it and propels it above the run of the mill. In book 1, it was all about family: good families, bad families, close families, families at war within themselves, found families, dysfunctional families. Here, the focus zooms in a bit; it's on motherhood specifically, and again, it looks at motherhood through many different lenses, good mothers, bad mothers, mothers who neglect or abandon their kids or worse, mothers who try to make up for mistakes of the past...

There's just more depth of humanity in this series than in the average urban fantasy, and even if most of it is in the hands of the protagonist, it still lifts the book. Verity has a great line of snark and is, at one and the same time, a coarse, rude, abrasive person and also deeply compassionate and dedicated to doing the right thing. That chimes with my (limited) experience of Queenslanders, though it may dial both tendencies up a bit for cinematic purposes.

Like its heroine, this series is certainly not perfect, but well worth following, and I look forward to reading book 3.

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