Thursday 24 June 2021

Review: A Clockwork River

A Clockwork River A Clockwork River by J.S. Emery
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I bailed on this one at the 65% mark, after the level of fortunate coincidence passed what I could tolerate.

There seems to be a rule in effect in this book that you can either have agency or interiority, but not both. What I mean is that the chatty omniscient narrator gives us insight into the thoughts and feelings of some characters, who we therefore assume are the protagonists; but those characters don't protagonise. The only effectual action (at least, up to the 65% mark) comes from secondary characters or the villain and his minions, and even then, most of them aren't especially competent.

Sam, whose qualifications to be the primary protagonist seem to mainly consist of being a middle-class white guy, is so ineffectual that any attempt he makes to do anything only ever makes the situation worse, necessitating yet another rescue by a random character. He's what I call a Spoiled Protagonist (not that he's a protagonist, really); wherever he goes, people who should be attending to their own business down tools and leap to help him for no readily apparent reason, often rescuing him from the consequences of his own incompetence, and, if female, falling in love with him (he also falls in love with every woman he meets, immediately and superficially). Having been rescued, he soon manages to bungle things and deposit himself into another fix, and the cycle repeats with a new rescuer. This episodic structure reminded me of picaresque, but Sam is not picaresque; he's too hapless and useless, too much of a schlemiel. The author is forced to heap greater and greater amounts of "good luck" on him in order to keep him moving through the plot and not dying, and eventually I couldn't take it anymore.

Sam's sister Briony is, at least, trying a bit harder and showing more competence, but at the point I gave up she was shaping up to be more of a potential victim than a protagonist.

The adjective I kept thinking of for the relatively lightly-sketched setting is "Dickensian," which is not a compliment coming from me; I have no love for Dickens' grimy, run-down world. It also has lots of characters (many of them more-or-less-good-hearted scoundrels or eccentrics) and lots of words - though, to the author's credit, the pace didn't drag for me.

The pre-publication ARC I had from Netgalley also has many, many unnecessary coordinate commas, or, as the author would punctuate it, "unnecessary, coordinate commas". The author also doesn't know when to use commas before "who" or "which", or where to put the apostrophe when a possessive noun is plural. The copy editor has their work cut out for them, which is usually a predictor of a book that will be published with a lot of residual errors. The vocabulary is expansive, and includes some words that neither I nor my Kindle's dictionary knew, but I only spotted one clear error in vocabulary usage (the word "chit," which means a girl, used to refer to Sam when he was a child). It's probable that a lot of this will be fixed before publication, but again, even the best copy editor misses about 10% of the issues, and 10% of these issues is a lot.

The book did have some strengths; the numerous characters are distinct and memorable, it manages to be wordy without being dull, and the numerous subplots included some mysteries that I wanted to know the answer to. But I didn't want to know badly enough to trudge through more ineptitude from Sam, from which he would, no doubt, be rescued by increasingly unlikely coincidences.

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Tuesday 15 June 2021

Review: Fool's Proof

Fool's Proof Fool's Proof by Eva Sandor
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is one of those books - I've seen a few lately, so I assume it's a new trend - that brings back an older narratorial approach of an omniscient implied narrator with an ironic tone, moving freely between the viewpoints of a number of hapless characters, who may or may not be protagonists. One of the characters even gets his heavy accent into the free indirect speech in which his viewpoint is depicted. (I didn't find it especially credible, by the way, that someone should have such a very heavy accent who, although originally from a remote mountain area, had grown up mostly not in that area. But this was a minor point.)

That ironic tone, the sometimes gruesome trials and often reduced agency of the characters, and the fact that children were always referred to as "brats" were not especially appealing elements to me, and did not prepare me for the ending, where (view spoiler). The intersections and progressions of the various characters are strongly driven by coincidence, which is not my favourite way for a plot to be driven.

The setting is one in which women are the fighters and labourers (apparently being the physically stronger sex) while men do the accounting, reading, and philosophizing. Both genders can be rulers. There's reliable contraception through chewing "maidenroot". All this was more in the background than the foreground, but gave an interesting spin to the world.

The copy editing was mostly OK, apart from some capitalization issues ("Brother" should be capitalized when it's part of a person's name, and "Harbour" when it's part of a place's name) and a few minor typos.

It's capably done, and the ending was unexpectedly satisfying, but the journey had too much ironic detachment from truly nasty events, too many clueless characters, and too much coincidence for me to really love it, or to add it to my Best of the Year list.

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Wednesday 9 June 2021

Review: Lost On A Page

Lost On A Page Lost On A Page by David E. Sharp
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Another in the metafictional genre pioneered by Jasper Fforde, and, like most metafiction (including Fforde's), it didn't wow me.

Especially early on, it was hard to shake the impression that the hack novels with flat characters and cliched settings were not satire, but reflected the author's actual level of ability to write. This was especially the case since there are a lot - really a lot - of basic copy editing issues. For example, the author frequently inserts a tag in the middle of a sentence of dialog, or between two sentences of dialog, but only rarely punctuates them correctly. The rule is that if the first section of dialog completes a sentence, there's a period after the "X said" tag and the new sentence starts with a capital, but if the sentence continues after the tag, there's a comma after "X said" and the second part of the sentence doesn't start with a capital. To give made-up examples: "That's what I wondered," said Joe. "How did she do that?" Or: "I've always wondered," said Joe, "how she did that."

What the author almost always does, though, is end the "X said" tag with a comma and start the next part of the dialog with a capital, which is wrong whether the second part is or is not a new sentence.

Other punctuation issues include misplaced commas (comma before the main verb, no comma before a term of address). Then there are the vocabulary issues: ally/alley, subsequent/prior, obligatorily/obligingly, rankled/wrinkled, amuck/amiss, illicit/elicit, hurtled/hurled, frontrunner/frontman, scuffle/scruff, immunity/impunity, dual/duel. The past perfect tense goes missing a few times as well. Besides these recurring issues, there were a few isolated errors with capitalization, apostrophe placement, hyphenation, use of the incorrect preposition in a phrase, and a comma splice.

I don't normally mention such issues in detail for books that I receive, as I did this one, via Netgalley, since they often have another edit to come before publication, but this has a publication date of 2018 on it, so I can only assume I have the published version.

The good news is that as the book went on, it did develop some suspense, and I did start to care about the characters succeeding, even though they didn't get any deeper. When your premise is that fictional characters from badly-written genre fiction have become real people, your writing really needs to make them feel more real, as if there's more to them than their stereotypes and their role in the plot; but I never felt that.

It did end up as a decent pulp plot with some exciting scenes and a satisfying conclusion, but for me it lacked depth, quality, and polish.

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Tuesday 8 June 2021

Review: The Wire Noose

The Wire Noose The Wire Noose by Erik Buchanan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book has a couple of non-fatal flaws, which appeared early on. Firstly, I had to double-check that this is Book 1, since there's a lot of expository backstory that sounds like "previously on...". I believe there's a prequel as a mailing list magnet, which explains why a lot of significant-sounding past events are summarized in what's marketed as the first book in the series.

The author also makes the classic stumble of introducing a large number of people at once (many with similar names - most characters' names end in -th, and those that don't all seem to end in -0), so that by the time any of them did anything I'd forgotten who they were.

Other than that, it was an entertaining fantasy mystery with a capable, determined and compassionate young female protagonist (who, quite appropriately, gets into trouble with her boss for going off without backup or telling anyone where she's going). The pacing worked well, with some suspenseful action scenes and a good progression of the mystery's solution through the book. The clues were there in plain sight but not so spotlighted that I solved the mystery before the character did, so well done on that too.

I will be looking out for sequels; the author and the character both show promise.

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Wednesday 2 June 2021

Review: The Season of the Plough

The Season of the Plough The Season of the Plough by Luke R.J. Maynard
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'm in two minds about this book.

On the one hand, it's well written at a sentence level, the characters are appealing, and it does something new with the tropes of epic fantasy. The main character may or (more likely) may not be the Chosen One, violence is clearly portrayed as horrifying and repulsive rather than being valorized, and the lives and concerns of ordinary people are celebrated as important. Even in the pre-release version I got via Netgalley, apart from a few missing words in sentences and "belied" used to mean "betrayed," the editing was remarkably clean. While the druid character has an obvious debt to Gandalf (and Väinämöinen, his inspiration, before him), he's not just Generic Mentor Figure #1, and nor is the monster sidekick just a monster sidekick. All of the characters have a bit more to them than their archetypes, and feel like real people with their own concerns and internal contradictions and struggles.

On the other hand, it has a big pacing issue. The first sign of something resembling a plot or inciting incident comes at the 52% mark. Prior to that, it wanders around, telling bits of stories of numerous characters - in some cases adding that this isn't their story - without any sense of urgency or direction. Many of the events are (for the setting) mundane, and consequential only for the people involved. It keeps, in other words, one aspect of epic fantasy - the sprawling wordiness - that I suspect few people love (I certainly don't), while not being in any other sense epic.

Because the more compelling content comes in the second half of the book, I did end up coming down on the positive side. Even the first half managed to keep my interest, though I started looking for the inciting incident at the traditional 25% mark and probably wouldn't have lasted much longer if it hadn't arrived when it did. However, even though there are character and plot arcs under way in the second half, the book doesn't tell a complete story in itself; it's an extended setup for later books, hinting at big dark epic events to come. It doesn't end in a cliffhanger, but it does seem to promise that most of the payoff that we haven't had yet is going to come later. And that keeps it off my Best of the Year list, and doesn't do its job of making me want to continue with the series.

Call me too traditional, but I was looking for a structure more like: first quarter sets the scene and brings on the characters, middle half develops the situation and characters, last quarter resolves something. What it does, it does well, and I applaud the attempt to write a book that isn't just the same old cliched epic fantasy over again, but it was sufficiently far from meeting my structural expectations that I don't plan to continue with the series. I need more frequent and more significant payoffs if I'm going to spend this long on a book.

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