Wednesday 24 March 2021

Review: Glass Coffin

Glass Coffin Glass Coffin by Gabby Hutchinson Crouch
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the third book of a series, of which I've not read the first two (yet, anyway; I probably will do so). However, there was enough previously-on that I got caught up easily and had no trouble following it.

At first I thought: you can have traditional fairy-tale characters, or you can have rounded characters, but it's very difficult to manage to have both, and this author is attempting to do so more by telling than by showing. However, a lot of that was the backstory/recap, and in the end I did feel like at least some characters exhibited at least some depth. There were a lot of characters, though, and most of them still felt a bit one-note.

It's reasonably funny. It's not Terry Pratchett funny, but then, what is? It's British funny, too, which works for me.

Like Pratchett, it's also good-hearted and believes in people, and their potential, and that all of them should be treated equally and fairly and as people (I can't say "human beings" in this context, given that one is a spider, and another a werewolf, and several have been transformed into one thing or another, but you know what I mean), and that the most unlikely, ordinary-seeming people can be heroes in the right situation.

(view spoiler)

Overall, the good-heartedness (and the fact that it's not chock-full of the usual copy editing issues, even in the pre-release copy I got via Netgalley) gets it into my Best of the Year recommendation list, though perhaps only by a whisker. For my taste, it's better than Jasper Fforde - I've never been a huge Fforde ffan, to be honest - but has a long way to go to be Pratchett at top form. On the other hand, this is only the third book, and the third Diskworld book had a long way to go to be Pratchett at top form, too. It shows promise, and fulfils at least some of it.

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Monday 22 March 2021

Review: Tools Of A Thief

Tools Of A Thief Tools Of A Thief by D. Hale Rambo
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

While its debt to D&D (and similar games) is particularly obvious, this doesn't read like a transcript of a game, and it's definitely not "game-lit".

It involves a gnomish rogue and a couple of people of a race that is, as far as I know, original having a low-level adventure. There's some dungeon delving and a couple of cities, and three main characters with different motivations for traveling.

It's enjoyable enough, but I felt a bit let down by the ending, since the protagonist didn't really resolve her own issue. She failed at most of what she attempted throughout the book, in fact, partly because of her own flaws and partly because the challenges were not that well suited to her skills or skill level. I've read a lot worse, but it didn't quite gel for me.

I received a copy via Netgalley for review.

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Monday 15 March 2021

Review: Samak the Ayyar: A Tale of Ancient Persia

Samak the Ayyar: A Tale of Ancient Persia Samak the Ayyar: A Tale of Ancient Persia by Freydoon Rassouli
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was... different.

A modern adaptation of a medieval Persian record of an epic oral tale, it follows the exploits of the title character, an ayyar - a kind of Persian ronin or ninja who also reminded me irresistibly of a D&D rogue (chaotic good alignment) or a swashbuckling hero of pulp fiction, not only in their ability to sneak into places and steal things but also because they are defenders of the common people, Robin Hood style. There's a great deal of getting over walls by using a lasso, putting sleeping powder in people's wine, daring disguises, and sudden fights in dark places.

The context is that a prince of Persia (this was originally going to be a tie-in to a new version of the video game Prince of Persia) has set out to marry the princess of the land of Chin, and this, by a convoluted series of events which honestly I've already forgotten, leads to a war between Chin and the neighboring kingdom of Machin.

As originally oral stories tend to do, the narrative then falls into a pattern (with considerable variation of detail, to be fair) that goes something like this:

1. Someone gets captured or kidnapped.
2. Samak goes after them, and through a combination of cleverness and fortuitously meeting exactly the person he needs to help him, manages to retrieve them, often also capturing their captor and/or stealing some treasure in the process.
3. This often incurs some kind of obligation to the helper (it's a "Yes, but," in improv terms) which then becomes a plot thread leading on past the completion of the sequence.
4. The kings, whose armies are drawn up facing each other, hear about Samak's success, and one of them writes a letter to the other. The messenger is received, given food and drink and entertained with music and dancing girls, then the vizier reads the message aloud (apparently Persian or Persianesque kings didn't read their own mail in this period).
5. The king reacts to events by deciding that it is on.
6. Champions from the respective armies challenge each other to single combat, and one of them defeats multiple opponents, remaining triumphant at the end of the day.

The sequence then repeats. This is varied by ambushes in which parts of the army are wiped out while moving from place to place; the occasional actual battle of the opposing armies when the champion vs champion turns nasty; reinforcements coming up from one place or another; and a number of side plots, mostly involving Samak's quests to fulfil his obligations to the people who helped him. It isn't all just formulaic, but it's formulaic enough that I became weary of the formula by the end.

Because of all these threads, and the large number of characters - far too many of whom are introduced as deus ex machina when Samak suddenly needs a conveniently loyal ally who can help with exactly the problem he has - and because a central driving force of the plot is the various relationships within the royal families, it becomes a bit like a soap opera, only with more stabbing.

This is the first of several projected volumes, and it ends still with plenty of plot threads to resolve. Although I did enjoy it - especially initially, when the experience was fresh - between the constant convenient helpers, the repetitious formula, and the large cast of mostly one-note characters I don't feel especially tempted to read future volumes.

I realize that a medieval Persian story inevitably won't match up to modern narrative expectations, and it's not really fair to expect this to succeed in today's terms (though it could almost have been a pulp serial from the 1930s). As an adaptation of a medieval tale, as far as I could judge it's done well, and the copy editing is mostly very good (even in the pre-release version I got from Netgalley for review). I enjoyed it in a similar way to the way I enjoyed reading a version of the Chinese classic Monkey: A Journey to the West , and for similar trickster-hero-related reasons.

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Tuesday 9 March 2021

Review: Mary Bennet and the Bingley Codex

Mary Bennet and the Bingley Codex Mary Bennet and the Bingley Codex by Joyce Harmon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the third in a brief consecutive run of books I've read featuring characters from Pride and Prejudice. Elizabeth Darcy was an incidental character in Unwritten ; Miss Bennet’s Dragon is an AU fanfic based on the story of Pride and Prejudice; and this one is written as a sequel to P&P (but in the fantasy genre).

Both Miss Bennet's Dragon and this book tackle the problem of Mary, who in the original is the plain, long-winded, conventionally pious, bookish but not very intellectually capable middle sister. Here, she's given something of a literary makeover into a highly intelligent, completely self-educated young woman who discovers a talent for magic while cataloging the library of a house that her brother-in-law Charles Bingley has bought as a deceased estate. Her prosy piety and conventional outlook get quietly dropped; instead, she's something much more palatable to a modern reader, a reformist who approves of educating the poor (and women).

While the middle of the book drags a little (it's essentially a long, slow training montage with a bit of setup for the end), we do get the promised fantasy adventure at last, and Mary does herself proud and saves the day. The incidental characters are well drawn, though I did wonder if some of their names (Geoffrey, Max) were much in use in the Regency period. It could have benefited from a stronger throughline and more focus; Mary doesn't have a strong goal she's striving for through most of the book, which may be why the middle feels so flabby. But it's well enough told that I wasn't at risk of losing interest. The copy editing issues were minor, which helped.

I do plan to read the rest of the series, though I'll wait for sale prices on the books; this one was enjoyable, but not so much so that I'll pay more for them than my usual maximum.

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Saturday 6 March 2021

Review: Miss Bennet’s Dragon

Miss Bennet’s Dragon Miss Bennet’s Dragon by M. Verant
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This isn't just a rehash of Austen; it's definitely an AU fanfic, though a good one. There are plenty of the usual anachronisms and Americanisms that you almost always get when 21st-century Americans set books in 19th-century Britain, but overall it's a capable job.

While it bills itself as a "retelling," what the author has really done is stripped Pride and Prejudice back to the skeleton - situations, events, relationships, character names, and in some cases, but definitely not in others, character personalities - and built something else on top of it, something that's quite a different story, especially towards the end.

Not only because this England has dragon-like creatures (and flourishing remnants of pre-Christian Britain; I detected some hints of anti-Christian bias in a few other aspects of the story, too). The original is about relationships and the society that constrains them and warps the people within it. This is much more of a fantasy adventure story, and drops those central concerns of Austen much more into the background. The more tediously silly characters (Mr Collins, Mrs Bennet, and Lady Catherine) don't get to talk nearly as much; their silliness is established more by telling than showing, because it's not the author's focus.

The story is narrated in first person by Lizzie, not by Austen's wry and sometimes cruel narrator. This gives it more immediacy, and also softens the portrayal of the Bennet family.

Her mother is still silly, though not as tragically so. Her father is inept, but her love for him covers the worst of his failings. Jane is still sweet; there's not much more to Jane, in the original or this version, than that, though here the consequences she suffers from events are much more serious. Kitty is still... rather superfluous and underdeveloped as a character.

Mary is, perhaps, the most transformed from the original. No longer a prosy, conventionally pious pseudo-intellectual who plays the piano adequately, she is deeply unconventional, the opposite of pious, highly intelligent, a skilled composer, and socially aware not so much beyond her years as beyond her year. It's true that Mary Wollstonecraft, who lived before the book is set, did articulate at least some of the ideas that Mary expresses here - though not in these terms, and there doesn't seem to be any reference to her writings or, indeed, any other writings available at the time. Mary is just a straight-up anachronism, an essentially early-21st-century young woman plopped into the early 19th. I have to say, I like this version of Mary more than the original (and it's clear that the author likes her a lot more than Austen liked the original, too), but there's no getting away from the fact that, of all the anachronisms, large and small, that creep into the book, Mary is the largest.

Lydia is also transformed, from a thoughtless child to a complete sociopath; Wickham goes from a rogue and a rake to a traitor. There's a lot more overt engagement with the events of the time, both the Napoleonic Wars and the debate over slavery (not yet outlawed in British possessions overseas, though it was illegal in Britain itself by this time). In Austen generally, these things are in the background, referenced subtly but never the focus; here, they are out in the open, and the war in particular comes to the characters and involves them whether they want it to or not.

Mr Darcy is pretty much the original, even in the parts that depart from the original plot and introduce entirely new events and situations. Lizzie is maybe just one step too special, but she is a fantasy heroine, after all. I appreciated the inversion of a trope, where (view spoiler). I also enjoyed the moment where (view spoiler)

I haven't read the book version of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, but I have read the graphic novel, and it consisted mostly of large chunks of original Austen prose interspersed with nonsensical martial arts scenes. This is a much subtler, and to me more successful, rewriting. If you're looking for faithfulness to Austen, or even a focus on what she focused on, this is not it. On the other hand, if you're looking for Austen-inspired adventure fantasy that's well told, and don't mind (or won't notice) a few 21st-century intrusions, this definitely is it, and I recommend it to you.

I received a review copy via Netgalley.

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Thursday 4 March 2021

Review: Unwritten

Unwritten Unwritten by Alicia J. Novo
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A solid YA portal fantasy that builds on the idea of book characters having their own lives outside the pages (similarly to Jasper Fforde or a few other authors).

While it occasionally strays into cliche (for example, in the final villain confrontation), at least nobody has green eyes. The worldbuilding is original, though it provides more questions than answers sometimes, and (as you perhaps might expect from a world based on books) the magic and technology appear to be able to do whatever is plot-convenient. The world ended up, for me, feeling a bit like a movie set that's only finished where the camera is pointing, and would be revealed as just bits of wood and canvas if you went round the back. But that's a complaint I often have; truly immersive worldbuilding is hard to do, especially if you're attempting something original, and I'd rather someone attempted originality and ended up slightly less than acing it than that they built the whole thing out of prefabricated parts.

The main character starts out as the usual uniquely special, socially outcast young woman with missing or abusive parents who's angry and impulsive and can't control her powers; but she's not a whiner, she doesn't instantly slobber over the love interest, and she does have a character arc that involves her exercising some agency and having some personal growth. So, better than average.

The secondary characters are perhaps slightly too numerous, and several of them (maybe as a result) are underdeveloped, but at least they don't help the MC for no reason. There are a number of useful minor antagonists - she's not one of those heroines who everyone inexplicably loves and goes out of their way to assist - and, while a bit of realistic dystopianism makes its way into the setting, it's not a political screed. I spotted the main villain slightly ahead of the reveal, but only slightly. (view spoiler)

There's a mystery plot (decoding a message) which helps to keep things moving and provides interim goals, and it's handled with variety, not just the same kind of solution over and over.

Overall, then, pretty solid, though with a way to go before it's truly excellent. There are some cliche elements, the worldbuilding is not always the clearest, some of the minor characters I found forgettable and hard to distinguish, and (in the pre-publication version I had from Netgalley), it suffers from some not-quite-right idioms and vocabulary choices. It definitely shows potential, though, and I found it above average for the genre.

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