Monday 30 November 2020

Review: The Iron Will of Genie Lo

The Iron Will of Genie Lo The Iron Will of Genie Lo by F.C. Yee
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The protagonist here is a young Asian American woman, and while I'm sure that it will have immense appeal to people who share one or more of those characteristics, I share none of them, and I thought it was terrific.

It's firmly grounded not only in Chinese mythology but in Chinese identity, in a way that's self-reflective without being self-indulgent, precious, or brittle, and that does an excellent job of conveying to an outsider the emotional dynamics involved. I particularly liked the part where Genie explained her (dysfunctional) family in a way that made it clear that, whatever their faults, they were hers and she loved them passionately. Also, the part where she explained to the clueless privileged Silicon Valley boy how people like her didn't get multiple chances to fail like he did. And the part where she gave Guanyin, the Chinese goddess of compassion, a sister power pep talk.

But also the parts where she bested multiple legendary beings through cleverness, determination, and just being an outright badass, all of which are very on-brand for a series based in the story of the Monkey King.

For me, just the right blend of action and depth, with characters who are flawed but full of heart; a suspenseful battle against a powerful existential threat; and a young woman coming to terms with life in an inspiring way.

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Monday 23 November 2020

Review: Spellmaker

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

A strong continuation of the enjoyable first book (it's definitely a continuation, too, with minimal "previously-on"; don't start here). The romance is clean, sweet, and involves two likeable people. The mystery... progress on it stalls for a while, and when it restarts it's helped along by a slight bit of coincidence (or authorial meddling), and the team gain a new ally or two in a way that I felt was too easy and convenient. But I've seen it done a lot worse, and mostly the plot progresses through protagonism. There are some suspenseful scenes, and the climactic confrontation shows the heroine at her best, capable and intelligent.

The author really doesn't have that strong a grasp on the Victorian era, particularly class and gender relations; it's something I've noted before about her other books. But if you can overlook that, these are enjoyable stories, well written, well edited, with sound structure and a positive feel to them.

I received a copy from Netgalley for review.

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Review: Questland

Questland Questland by Carrie Vaughn
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The setting for this novel is a kind of updated Dream Park - an immersive LARPing environment constructed with sufficiently advanced technology (an unspecified number of years into the future) that it's at least difficult to distinguish from magic. Except an energy barrier has gone up and isolated the island where Questland is being developed by a corporation headed by the usual billionaire narcissist, and said narcissist has hired a team to go in and get it back for him.

Cue the trope of "very civilian female expert is called in to consult on a matter that's under military or paramilitary jurisdiction and is super secret, and she has to deal with the militariness of it all". (Really, it's a trope, though usually the matter under investigation is first contact, in my previous experience.) In this case, there are a couple of extra layers: the expert, as the survivor of a school shooting where her boyfriend and her best friend were killed in front of her, suffers from PTSD and is not at all comfortable around the military; and her expertise is not only as a comparative-lit professor who is also deeply into the kind of nerdy pursuits that form the basis of Questworld, but as the ex-girlfriend of the prime suspect for the activator of the barrier: the head of the design team.

Ironically enough, the problems I had with this one were all about suspension of disbelief. I didn't believe in the conveniently uninhabited, idyllic island some distance off the west coast of the US. I didn't believe that the ex-boyfriend believed he would somehow be able to get legal ownership of it for the developers. I didn't believe that after five months of the island being isolated, no friends or relatives on the mainland had raised any kind of public fuss, or that the supplies were holding out so well, or that the people on the island weren't bothered by the isolation, or that the US government hadn't done more to get in there - especially since a ten-person Coast Guard crew had been killed trying to breach the barrier - or that nobody had leaked anything to the media. I didn't believe that a designer (not an engineer) could come up with the energy barrier and construct it, apparently without the help of the engineering team, in the first place, or that there would be enough power to sustain it. I didn't initially believe that three project managers, after five months, hadn't apparently made any progress in solving the problem of accessing the central system, but then I thought about project managers I've known and believed it after all. I didn't, however, believe in the central system, which none of the people who had set up the entire island seemed to really understand or be in control of. It was as if the true antagonist was a system that everyone had contributed to but nobody understood or controlled, except maybe the tech billionaire; and then I wondered if this was a callback to the first scene, and the lit prof's student going on about rampant capitalism.

So anything in the physical and technical setup I pretty much didn't believe. What I did believe was the emotional and personal setup, which is where the book was strong. The post-traumatic professor, the attitude of the military people (who clearly had respect for what she was dealing with and how she was dealing with it, even if she wasn't aware of that respect), the self-absorbed and condescending ex, the ineffectual project manager, the angry engineer who was in it for the sense of wonder - all of these I believed. There was a strong human story being told, but for me, it didn't quite come completely together, not only because of my struggles to suspend belief about the setup and the setting, but also in that it felt just a little bit undercooked. There were the elements of an even stronger, and indeed very powerful, story, but whether from inadequate on-page reflection, a lack of clarity, or not enough development, they didn't add up to as much as they might have.

I find this author's books a mixed bag. When she's good, she's amazing, but when she's a bit off her game - and, for me, this is one of those books - it's disappointing, because I know she's capable of more. There was a lot of potential here that I felt remained unrealized.

I received a review copy via Netgalley.

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Wednesday 18 November 2020

Review: Villains: Superpower Chronicles Book 4

Villains: Superpower Chronicles Book 4 Villains: Superpower Chronicles Book 4 by Arthur Mayor
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I think the copy editing, which was shockingly bad in the earlier books, actually got a bit better in this one - though neither the author nor the editor he credits have run spellcheck, still.

Setting that aside, I like these books, because Ryan/Raven is a classic underdog. He doesn't have much in the way of superpowers, though it seems like his powers have got a bit better in this book (I don't remember his super-healing, though maybe that's me). He can't fly, he's not super-strong or invulnerable or anything useful like that, he can't fire energy beams or set things on fire. He learns physical actions really easily, so he's a parkour expert and martial artist, and he can (sometimes, unreliably) go into a subjective "slow time" mode which gives him more time to react to what's going on. That's it - except it isn't. His real superpower is that he's good at recruiting allies, even from among the villains; and he's really, really determined to do the right thing (protect the city and the people who live there), at any cost to himself, despite being comprehensively outmatched at every turn. He's also a decent detective, though that's mainly down to the allies thing.

At one point, he has what could easily have been the stupid Convenient Eavesdrop trope, except the author makes him earn his eavesdrop by deliberately hiding in a precarious position to overhear what he knows will be an informative meeting (which in turn enables him to be at another meeting to eavesdrop and allows him to save someone and recruit another ally). There are one or two small coincidences to advance the plot, but nothing too convenient.

Superhero fights form a large proportion of the book, again, and it was almost a little too much, again, but not quite. The action is varied, there's always more at stake than just "do they win the fight," and watching Raven improvise his way to another narrow victory is always entertaining. The author knows how to write an action plot, and the snarky narration is genuinely amusing.

His mess of a personal/family/school life is more in the background for this volume, though it's getting more and more entangled with his superhero life.

I came out of this one wanting to read the next, but I will still wait for the price to drop a bit. The normal price of the books is too high for the poor standard of copy editing.

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Monday 16 November 2020

Review: Hex Breaker

Hex Breaker Hex Breaker by Stella Drexler
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

At the end of this book, for some reason, there are "questions for discussion". One of them is "Which character did you like the most?"

It brought me to the realization that not only did I strongly dislike the main couple, there wasn't anyone in the book I didn't dislike. I suppose I disliked the heroine's friend (the one with the magic shop) the least, but that may be because she was more of a vending machine for solutions than an actual character. And, like every other person in the book, she was obsessed with sex.

The book itself has three very explicit sex scenes, two of them with a character that is not the one the heroine ends up with.

I was going to put spoiler tags around that last bit, but really, it's obvious pretty early on, because of the strongly structured nature of romance, who the couple is and that they will end up together, despite the fact that he's an arrogant rich guy and she's angry at everyone, but especially him, because he was involved in the death of the love of her life ten years before. I didn't like either one of them, as I mentioned, and I didn't like their interaction (which was angry and hostile and involved quite a bit of grabbing one another's arms and shouting), and I didn't believe for one moment that getting together would be good for either one of them, or would last very long. Consequently, I didn't care if they got together or not, and in fact wished they wouldn't. I had more sympathy for the heroine's original boyfriend; sure, he was a bit of a tool (but no more so than anyone else in the cast, and less than most), and sure, he was jealous, but he absolutely had good reason to be. My feeling was that he had a lucky escape when she dumped him.

The heroine's hostility gives her a conversational style where she spends a lot of her time blocking her conversational partners by arguing against everything they say, which drags out the dialog scenes and kills their momentum (besides making her extraordinarily annoying).

I know the "hate to love" arc has a long pedigree in romance, going back to the ur-romance, Pride and Prejudice, even though it rarely happens in real life (I'm aware of only one example among people I'm personally acquainted with). In this case, though, the characters were so unappealing that their past trauma, and the revelations of how things had gone differently from how the heroine thought, weren't enough to make me care about their relationship or make me want to see them together.

The mystery subplot was OK. The paranormal aspect (magic exists in the contemporary world and is publicly acknowledged) I felt had the usual problem of that scenario, whether the setting is contemporary or historical: it wasn't sufficiently developed, and the world didn't feel different enough.

So this one was not for me, though it's probably for someone.

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Wednesday 11 November 2020

Review: Vigilantes

Vigilantes Vigilantes by Arthur Mayor
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Again: dude. Use spellcheck. It's free with any tool you might reasonably use to write a book. And then check for homonym errors, because spellcheck won't catch those, and there are a lot of them. After that, look at your punctuation, especially capitalization.

But setting aside the many, many copy editing issues that kept throwing me out of the story, this isn't bad. There's an element of coincidence (people meeting out of costume who know each other in costume), but it increases rather than decreases the trouble the protagonist is in, so it's allowable under the Pixar Rules.

Ryan/Raven, the hapless protag, is trying to be a good, normal teenager, but the city won't let him; it keeps needing him to save it. And everyone is making moral compromises (including him, to a degree, mostly in who he's accepting help from), and it just keeps on getting worse.

There are a lot of superhero fights, maybe one or two too many, though they are well done.

Overall, these are good supers stories, but I really wish he'd get a better editor.

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Monday 9 November 2020

Review: Storm Cursed

Storm Cursed Storm Cursed by Patricia Briggs
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Darker than I prefer (torture and death of humans and animals, on a large scale). Also, we've reached the point where Mercy is facing challenges that ought to be way out of her league and is essentially just pulling solutions out of the air, either discovering unprefigured powers she can suddenly use or else conveniently having someone with her who does the same.

It holds onto its fourth star despite this, because it's well written, but reading the reviews of the next in the series I wonder if I want to continue with them.

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Tuesday 3 November 2020

Review: The Brass Queen

The Brass Queen The Brass Queen by Elizabeth Chatsworth
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

My problem with this one was simple. In a romance (and this has such a strong romance subplot that it is arguably a romance), I need to believe in the attractiveness of both parties in order to buy in. And I found the heroine of this one very unattractive.

At one point, the hero says, "I don't know why men aren't lining up around the block to marry her," and I thought, "Oh, I do."

She's high-handed, hot-headed, self-centred, and has no people skills whatsoever, possibly because she believes everything is about her, and so doesn't bother to consider what other people might be thinking and feeling. Also, though this wouldn't put off the noblemen she hopes will marry her, since they share the quality, she's severely overprivileged. And finally, though at this point the hero and the noblemen don't know this (the reader does), she's an arms trader who has no hesitation selling weapons, legally or otherwise, to criminals, imperialists and despots. This is more because she doesn't think about how they will be used than because she thinks about it and doesn't care, but that doesn't exactly make up for it.

Queen Victoria is one of the aforementioned despots, by the way, having (in a development that seems highly unlikely for anyone who knows much British history) dismissed Parliament so that she can rule uninhibited. Several characters we're supposed to sympathize with, including the heroine, are in effect propping up her despotic and dystopian rule and helping her to conquer other nations.

Steampunk is prone to bad copy editing, for some reason. Since I got a pre-publication version via Netgalley I won't say much about this, except that I hope there's another round of copy editing before it's published. It's already better than a lot I've seen, but that's a sadly low bar. I'd expected a better starting point from someone with an English literature degree, frankly.

I'd also expected fewer obvious Americanisms in the POV of the British characters from someone born in the UK, but there we are. Perhaps they're deliberately translated for a US audience.

Leaving all of these problems aside - which is difficult - there were good aspects. There are genuinely funny moments (though cruelty and despotism played for laughs didn't get any from me). There are thrilling action scenes. The hero, if possibly a bit underdeveloped, is a decent guy.

Overall, though, I just couldn't stand the heroine.

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