Friday 30 October 2020

Review: Gods & Lies: A Novel

Gods & Lies: A Novel Gods & Lies: A Novel by Elizabeth Vail
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An interesting world, in which Graeco-Roman-style gods live among humans, and you can (under certain circumstances) go and talk to them, and it's a secondary world (or at least the names of countries are different), but the technology level is that of our contemporary world.

This forms the background for a good solid murder mystery. The investigator is a priestess of Justice, and she's assisted by a former criminal informant/demigod who is trying to get his act together, and faces an uphill battle to do so.

The gods are privileged (in the original meaning of the word: they have a private law, which is different from the law that applies to humans), and the investigator has a big problem with that. Especially since the clues in the murder keep pointing to it having been done by a god, and she has no jurisdiction if that is the case.

The undercurrent of attraction between the ill-assorted pair (who alternate as viewpoint characters) adds to the already well-drawn characterization, the mystery is textbook in its execution, and all in all it's a good bit of craft, as well as being entertaining.

Copy editing is good, too, with only a few small typing errors. I'll be looking for more from this author.

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Tuesday 27 October 2020

Review: Lucky

Lucky Lucky by R.H. Webster
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was OK, but not great. The romance was leisurely and clean; the mystery subplot wasn't that mysterious (I spotted the "surprise" criminal well before the characters did); the technology didn't make a whole lot of sense; there seemed to be elements that had either been incompletely cut out or not fully developed; and it needed another edit for typos. (I had a review copy from Netgalley, but the publication date is a couple of years ago, so I assume I have the published version.)

This is one of those space operas where most of the non-spacefaring technology is, if anything, a bit behind the current real-world state of the art, especially the information technology. Much is made of the heroine's ability to organize the ship's files by "alphabetizing" and making them searchable, but every filesystem available today can search files for keywords already. Printed books have been entirely replaced by electronic copies for environmental reasons, but instead of people having one device through which they access everything (such as the ones that already exist in real life), there are a profusion of "flex screens" that, while they appear to be reusable, also get handed round with single documents on them; people carry multiple ones of them. There's also a reference to a "printer" which never seems to get used, and it's not clear what it would be used for, given the other tech that's mentioned. There's no ship's AI even as good as Alexa, and if you want to talk to someone on the ship, you do an announcement over the general PA to the whole ship rather than calling their individual phone (which do exist). It's apparently cheaper to use oppressed humans than automation to do manufacturing. In general, I had the impression that the tech hasn't been thought through, and that the author maybe doesn't know much about current technology.

The colonised planets are fairly dystopian, corrupt and harsh, and society seems to have become more conservative (which could happen; such things come and go, but there's no real sense of a historical reason for it). One of the planets has a "magnetic east," which makes no sense (magnetism flows between north and south; east and west are based on the planet's rotation with respect to its star).

There's an odd distinction made between the captain of the ship and the commander of the ship; these are two different people. It's never clear what the captain does if he's not in command.

I could ignore all this, which was mostly background, but the plot itself gave a sense that either not everything has been revealed by the end, not all the elements had been fully developed, or big chunks had been cut out and left traces behind. For example, at one point someone references (deprecatingly) the ship commander's religion, but this mention is the only indication that he's religious; we never see any hint of it when we're in his viewpoint. The heroine falls asleep without turning out her bedside light; when she wakes up, it's off, and the person who came to wake her turns it on. The fact that this is mentioned seems like it should be significant, like someone or something turned it off, but nothing ever comes of it, and it ends up seeming like just an odd continuity error. There's some business about a deck plate that keeps coming loose in flight, and other issues with the ship's artificial gravity, but it never ends up getting properly explained. (There is some mention of the gravity being manipulated to hide things being smuggled, but it's not fully worked out or ever completely summarized.)

Then there are a lot of minor typos - the usual thing, small words missing from sentences or substituted for other small words, like "the" for "then" and the like, which are hard to pick up unless you're very vigilant, and some missed quotation marks. There's the occasional missing past perfect tense, too.

If it didn't have all these minor issues, it would still be kind of average and nothing special; entertaining enough, but bland and lacking much development. A solidly three-star book.

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Monday 26 October 2020

Review: Doors of Sleep: Journals of Zaxony Delatree

Doors of Sleep: Journals of Zaxony Delatree Doors of Sleep: Journals of Zaxony Delatree by Tim Pratt
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Some time ago, I read quite a bad book with a main character named something similar to Zax, which is what this book's main character is called by his friends. Not only that, but the author's first name was not too dissimilar to Zaxony. And the premise was that whenever the protagonist fell asleep, he shifted into another universe.

So I wondered, when I picked this one up (having been fortunate enough to be invited to review it by the publisher, via Netgalley), whether it was prompted by the author reading that same book I read and, in frustration, deciding to write a better one.

Nothing else about the books is remotely similar, so it may be complete coincidence. But the most important difference is that this is really good.

I've talked in other reviews about how there are two versions of Tim Pratt. The "dark" Pratt writes gruelling stories about nasty people having a bad time, often because of what they do to each other; the "bright" Pratt writes hopeful stories about good people overcoming the evil of others, often by generosity and self-sacrifice. This book, happily, is by the "bright" Pratt.

The main character, Zax, is an early-career harmonizer, a kind of social worker who helps individuals and groups find ways to get along. Through mysterious events (they get a bit less mysterious in the course of the book, but are never fully explained), he begins to shift universes every time he goes to sleep. He's able to take someone with him if they're both asleep and in close contact, and, in a probable salute to Doctor Who, he has a series of companions, some of whom leave him when they get to a place they want to stay. One of them, however, the Lector (the chief administrator of a university and a talented scientist) betrays him and tries to take the secret of his universe-shifting by violence.

The story opens some time after his experience with the Lector, which is later told in flashback. He's travelling from universe to universe, and they're diverse and sometimes dangerous and sometimes extremely beautiful. The societies he encounters range from utopian to dystopian, and some are both depending who you are. He soon rescues a new companion, Minna, who's talented with genetic manipulation - just how talented he doesn't realize until later - and an indentured servant of remote and cruel overlords.

And then the Lector catches up with him, and reveals his plan to create a multi-universal empire, and Zax, Minna, and an AI they've picked up along the way called Vicki must find a way to thwart him.

The story puts Zax's training and ideals as a harmonizer directly into conflict with the Lector's as a conqueror and organizer, raising important questions about self-determination, civilization, and what is good. It's well handled, for the most part, and thought-provoking, and doesn't come to set conclusions about political structure, though it does have some things to say about attitudes and general approaches to relations between people and groups.

There are one or two moments when satire is applied with too heavy a hand, as when Zax visits a world where everyone has retreated to (literal) bubbles in which they can be with only the people who "share their exact values and biases", this being a ploy to end a civil war. The bubble he arrives in contains people who drink craft beer, ride electric scooters, have elaborate facial hair, believe in respect and kindness... and spend a lot of time using small electronic devices made in another bubble where people believe in child labour. I thought that was a bit on the nose. But that's an aberration in a story that's usually a lot smoother and more subtle, and the varied worlds are imaginative and interesting, reminding me irresistibly of Roger Zelazny's Amber and Corwin's trips through Shadow. It could, in fact, have easily become a series of vignettes, which would probably still have been entertaining, but the overarching story with the Lector as antagonist adds tension and weight.

The ending suggests that we might be in for a series, and if so, I'm very happy and will follow the series eagerly. This book has no trouble making it to my Best of 2020 list.

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Saturday 24 October 2020

Review: Heroes

Heroes Heroes by Arthur Mayor
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a really difficult book for me to rate.

On the one hand, it's a well-told story, the pacing is good, the snark is excellent, the main character grapples with significant issues in a well-rendered manner.

On the other hand, the copy editing is abysmally bad. I feel frankly disrespected by how bad it is. This is why I waited for the book to be on sale; I sampled it and found "robed" spelled "robbed" and thought, "I'm not paying $4.99 for that." I'm willing to pay a little more for an indie book that has impeccable editing, like Melissa McShane's, for example, but this one is so bad that I feel a bit ripped off having only paid 99c.

An editor is credited. Now, I've been an editor, and I know that if you get a truly terrible manuscript and miss 10% of the issues (which is about the average number that you'll miss), it still comes out looking as if it hasn't been edited, because nobody can see what you've fixed. But this one hasn't even been spellchecked. Spellcheck is built into any tool a sensible person would use to write a book. The author could have spellchecked it. But it appears that neither the author nor the editor has done so. Add to that missing commas before terms of address (to me, the clearest mark of an amateur); shonky capitalisation; proper nouns inconsistently spelled; simple punctuation errors like double periods, exclamation mark and period, or no space after a period; apostrophe issues; vocabulary glitches... I spotted over a hundred errors, and I don't usually see more than a couple of dozen in a book this size.

It's bad enough that I'm dinging it a star, even though the story was good and I had no complaints about it. These days, indies just can't get away with being this unprofessional.

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Tuesday 20 October 2020

Review: Defending the Galaxy

Defending the Galaxy Defending the Galaxy by Maria V. Snyder
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've very much enjoyed this trilogy, and a lot of that is down to the protagonist.

Sure, she's literally a Chosen One. But she's not chosen because of some stupid prophecy or because of her "bloodline" (as if we still believed in the Divine Right of Kings). She's chosen because she's smart, skilled, and principled (for a certain value of "principled"), and she specifically has to solve problems for herself, not just refuse to learn anything and then get her powers handed to her at a moment of crisis. Although there was a moment when I thought the author had dropped a deus ex machina on us, it actually was an opportunity for her to rescue herself and everyone else through cleverness, persistence, and hard-won skills.

The villains are suitably villainous (disgruntled because entitled, setting out to improve their own lives at the cost of others'), there's a strong vibe of "I couldn't do this without my team," and there's a realistic amount of "we're not listening to you because you're a child" followed by "you've proven yourself to be responsible, maybe we should listen to you after all".

The premise is fresh and original, the execution is sound, and all in all it's a good ride.

Don't start here; this is very much the third in a trilogy, and there's very little "previously-on" to orient you if you haven't read the first two books. They form a unit, to be read in order.

I received a copy via Netgalley for review.

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Monday 19 October 2020

Review: Red, White, and the Blues

Red, White, and the Blues Red, White, and the Blues by Rysa Walker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a cut above the usual level of writing. It has a complex plot that's nevertheless fully comprehensible and clear. It's well-researched, but the author doesn't make us drink from the exposition bucket, or throw in research facts that don't make any difference to the story just because she worked hard to obtain them. And despite the review copy I received from Netgalley billing itself as an "uncorrected proof," I noticed hardly any copy editing issues (which is vanishingly rare).

Sure, I've complained in previous reviews of the author's books that the genetic science is bunk, but I'm happy to forgive that, especially since it doesn't figure into this installment all that much. The history is solid, and it's not the usual stuff that everyone knows with the same old historical figures (though Einstein does make a brief appearance); it includes a number of now-obscure real people who were well known at the time, and who either promoted or (in a couple of cases) opposed Nazism in the US prior to the US entry into World War II.

Because this is the story of a nefarious plot to "flip" the timeline so that the US never did enter the war, and the Nazis won. Or rather, it's the story of the struggles of a number of determined, courageous people (and one complete bastard) to flip it back again.

The author seems to be fascinated by World's Fairs; a significant amount of the first series in this setting takes place at the one in Chicago at the end of the 19th century, and this one has the New York World's Fair of 1939-40 as a pivotal location. Again, though, that part of the setting is shown to us with restraint, only featuring the things that are either important or highly noticeable.

The whole story is told in first person present tense, from three different viewpoint characters. The present tense makes all kinds of sense as a way to narrate a time travel book; the first person, though, takes me to the only significant flaw I noted in what was otherwise a highly skilled piece of writing. All three narrative voices sounded exactly the same, despite their quite different backgrounds and personalities, and I often had to flip back to the start of a section to check the name so I knew whose viewpoint I was in (especially when I put it down partway through a section in the same viewpoint and picked it up again later). A writer who is as otherwise skilled as this author should be able to make the character voices much more distinct.

Apart from that one complaint, I enjoyed this very much, and will happily continue to follow the series.

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Monday 5 October 2020

Review: Matthew Henson and the Ice Temple of Harlem

Matthew Henson and the Ice Temple of Harlem Matthew Henson and the Ice Temple of Harlem by Gary Phillips
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

An old-style pulp adventure updated for modern sensibilities, starring real historical figure Matthew Henson, the Arctic explorer, in the title role.

The author has done a lot of research on the period, and it shows - too much. He's constantly dropping names of contemporary celebrities and bits of researched background that aren't germane to the story. Just because the research well is deep is no reason to make the reader drink from the bucket; it needs to mean something. Some other historical figures are given small parts, though, not just observed in passing - Nikola Tesla, aviatrix Bessie Coleman, gangster Dutch Schultz, and others.

Having done all that research, he then ignores a few historical facts for the purposes of his story. It's set in the early 1920s, at which point Henson was in his late 50s and married to his second wife, but in this version he is (apparently) much younger, and single.

The story is fine, moving along well (despite the research dumps - they are, at least, brief), with lots of action, plenty of threats, high stakes, and fantastical McGuffins. The character reflects on his life a bit in between the action, and if he doesn't come to any real conclusions, at least the thought was put in.

I had an advance review copy from Netgalley, and I am skeptical that the many, many, many copy-editing issues can be fixed before publication - most of the common issues (punctuation, homonyms and near-homonyms, dangling modifiers), but a lot more of them than I usually see, even pre-publication.

If you can ignore those and just enjoy the ride, it's a decent pulp adventure with an overlay of history that makes the Harlem Renaissance come to life for a modern audience.

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