Friday 23 July 2021

Review: Campaigns & Companions: The Complete Role-Playing Guide for Pets

Campaigns & Companions: The Complete Role-Playing Guide for Pets Campaigns & Companions: The Complete Role-Playing Guide for Pets by Alex de Campi
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Light, slight, and mildly amusing. It's essentially the same joke (in a D&D scenario, an animal behaves stereotypically) repeated over and over. The illustrations are fun and well executed, but usually a depiction of the joke you've just read.

I received an advance review copy via Netgalley.

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Wednesday 21 July 2021

Review: Servant Mage

Servant Mage Servant Mage by Kate Elliott
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I'm not sure why I don't love Kate Elliott's books. The prose is competent (to a degree that's rare in my experience) and the protagonists are typically determined, capable young women, my favourite kind of protagonist. But there's something in the feel of them that's darker than I prefer, and that isn't offset by a deft hand with theme, or overt insight into the human condition in general, or immersion in the viewpoint and emotions of the protagonist in particular. The tone of them feels somehow a bit chilly, and when that's set against political struggles between ruthless and cruel antagonists that, in this case, goes all the way up to dystopian (a genre I try to avoid)... I just don't love it.

I don't absolutely hate it either. I considered abandoning the book, but I cared enough to finish. I don't think I care enough to read the next one, though. Somehow, I never became that invested in the protagonist's struggle, even when, right at the end, she made a principled decision that provided another option besides the two unappealing ones she was presented with.

She did protagonize, though for a lot of the book she was being dragged along in the wake of someone else's plan, going along with it because either the alternative was worse or she thought the goal of saving a life or lives a worthy one. She took action that made a difference, and made decisions that were important and carried weight. But it did feel like I was stuck not very far into the viewpoint of one member of an ensemble cast, and not the most effectual one.

I think it's the dominance of politics that is responsible for a lot of my lukewarmness. I feel like the focus is set too wide for my taste, that the personal story of the protagonist gets skimped because of the wide sweep of events. I feel the same about other authors that I ought, on paper, to enjoy, like C.J. Cherryh or Trudi Canavan.

It's well done, if you like that sort of thing. But personally, I just don't enjoy it that much.

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Tuesday 20 July 2021

Review: Jill the Reckless

Jill the Reckless Jill the Reckless by P.G. Wodehouse
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Not as well known as many of the author's other books, this is part of a cluster of loosely related stories (with some overlap in characters or locations) set at least partially in New York around 1920, the year it was published. Wodehouse himself spent a good deal of time in New York around this period, writing for musical comedy, and a satirical insider's look at the musical comedy business forms a background to this piece.

The main story, though, focuses on the title character. Most of Wodehouse's books have male main characters, who tend to fall into a stereotype: either wealthy or, at least, while currently not wealthy, from a privileged background; not very bright; and not at all useful. There is a character like that in this book - Freddie Rooke, Jill's childhood friend, who is indirectly and partially responsible for some of Jill's troubles - but it's very much Jill's story, and it's more or less a romance, though not quite as we know it. The two love interests, between whom Jill must decide, are not particularly developed; but all of the characters are to some degree taken from stock, as is usually the case with Wodehouse (and also in the musical comedies that made him much of his early money).

Nevertheless, this has a bit more emotional depth and range than most of his better-known work, and the stakes are often higher than avoiding social embarrassment (though one of Wodehouse's inimitable qualities is to make avoiding social embarrassment seem like important stakes). It's not the kind of farcical nonsense that I usually think of when I think of his books. That's not to say it isn't funny; it's just not so over-the-top ridiculous. There are a couple of references in it to people trying to write something more serious and worthy than the typical musical comedy, and it failing to go over, whereupon either the author or the show must return to the well-loved formula, and that could stand as a metaphor for what Wodehouse himself was doing here in what is not generally regarded as one of his great books.

I thought it was pretty good, though, if you took it as what it is rather than expecting it to be what Wodehouse is better known for. The big problem I had with it - and this is a problem I've had with better books than this, like Dracula, for example - is that coincidental meetings and fortunate timing play such a major role in moving the plot along.

The plot isn't as packed with incident as the usual Wodehouse plot, either, but I still enjoyed it. It makes me think about tracking down a few more of his works from this period and giving them a read.

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Wednesday 14 July 2021

Review: Map's Edge

Map's Edge Map's Edge by David Hair
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Adventurous, exciting, suspenseful, and full of tension. The copy editing (even in the pre-release version I read from Netgalley) is cleaner than average. The characters are appealing and varied, and their various alliances, hostilities, and other interactions drive the plot in interesting ways.

I debated, though, about whether or not to put it on my Best of the Year shelf or not, largely because of the ending, but also a bit because of the worldbuilding. In the end, it squeaked through, but it will be at or near the tail end of the list.

Without giving spoilers, at the end the author feels the need to pull out three fortunate coincidences (including a Convenient Eavesdrop), spaced very closely together, to get the protagonists out of the corner he's backed them into. This isn't typical of the rest of the book at all; they succeed against the odds not by good luck, but by courage, intelligence, good planning, and the judicious application of their skills, which is how protagonists should succeed.

The ending is also a cliffhanger. I'm not as averse to those as some people are, but I don't love them either. Combined with the coincidences, it felt like the author rushed and forced the ending and finished the book too early.

Throughout, I was never sure whether this was planetary fantasy (along the lines of Sherri Tepper's True Game or Ann McCaffrey's Pern, where settlers on a planet gain unusual powers and forget their interstellar origins), or whether it was simply a secondary-world flintlock fantasy where several of the cultures were copied wholesale from Earth. The evil imperialists are Russianesque; one magical language is Latin, and the culture and language of the fallen empire from hundreds of years before appear Japanese. There's a tribe at the end who are essentially Maori (and ride on birds that are like more colourful moas), but they speak an odd blend of almost-Maori and kind-of-Japanese. If these are settler cultures on another planet, that's inadequately explored and not clearly justified; if it's just lazy worldbuilding by way of cultural photocopying, I have a problem with that approach.

So: most of the book is very sound and enjoyable, but it's let down by a couple of aspects, and so only barely makes my recommended list for 2021.

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Monday 12 July 2021

Review: Ten Thousand Stitches

Ten Thousand Stitches Ten Thousand Stitches by Olivia Atwater
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Like the previous book in the series, this makes my 2021 Best-Of list. It's a well-handled, well-paced fantasy Regency romance, with an atypical (for Regency romance) focus on the folk "below stairs". In fact, this and its predecessor have a very strong streak of anger against the injustices perpetrated by the privileged on the less powerful.

The protagonist is a maid in a household where the Family give no consideration to the humanity of the staff, but overwork them shamelessly (it eventually emerges that the understaffing is because they have laid people off in an effort to deal with financial troubles, but they still expect the same amount of work from a smaller workforce, a story familiar to many people who have worked in the modern corporate world).

One of the things I like about the series is that the heroes and heroines are not the usual attractive, powerful, bland, generic people, but have flaws in their appearance and external circumstances that are more than made up for by their characters. A minor character, for example, is a gentleman who, while very ordinary in appearance, has a good heart. And the characters are not pushed back and forth passively by the whims of Fate (in the person of the author) either; they struggle and work for their resolutions. The magic is imaginative and original, Faery is appropriately odd and whimsical and slightly sinister, and it's as far as it could be from being made from box mix.

What lets it down a little is that the author has a couple of bad punctuation habits. She doesn't know when not to use a coordinate comma (when the adjectives couldn't reasonably appear in a different order), and often hyphenates adjectival and (even worse) adverbial phrases that should not be hyphenated. There are a few glaring Americanisms in the mouths of the supposedly English characters, too.

Those issues didn't mar my enjoyment too much, though; the storytelling craft is sound throughout, and I look forward to reading the next book in the series.

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Wednesday 7 July 2021

Review: Indiscretions of Archie

Indiscretions of Archie Indiscretions of Archie by P.G. Wodehouse
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Archie reads a little like a dry-run for Bertie Wooster, without a Jeeves. In other words, he's a prize idiot in much the same way that Empress of Blandings is a prize pig.

He's good-looking, good-natured, and good-hearted, which is why the daughter of a hotel mogul marries him prior to the start of the story, but he has no money, no skills, and no brains, which is why the hotel mogul is less than enthusiastic about his new son-in-law.

He does have a character arc, though. He starts out messing up everything he tries. Then things go wrong for him in ways that mostly aren't his fault for a while, and then things start going right for him by lucky chance more than by his action, and finally he starts doing things that are actually effective. It's like Wodehouse has plotted the book on a clock; the vertical line from 12 to 6 is the division between "things go poorly" and "things go well", and the horizontal line from 3 to 9 is the division between "Archie takes action" and "things just happen".

He was a second lieutenant in World War I, and served courageously, if without any intelligence. In the real world, this would probably have meant that he led a number of men to unnecessary deaths, but this is Wodehouse-world, and the war's horrors are kept at a safe distance. Not only violence, but also sex, is implied but not stated.

Speaking of which, Archie's beloved wife loves Archie dearly, and is attractive in a 1920s way, and does for-the-time-conventional wife things, but she never rises to the status of a fleshed-out character. She's more of a plot device.

There are genuine funny (and occasionally dramatic or touching) moments, though, and the newspaper poem about the pie-eating contest is by itself worth the price of admission. (In my case, the price of admission was dealing with the need for more proofreading in the Project Gutenberg edition.)

If you are a Wodehouse fan, you will probably enjoy this. It's not his greatest work, but it's still entertaining.

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Monday 5 July 2021

Review: House of Many Ways

House of Many Ways House of Many Ways by Diana Wynne Jones
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Although I still gave it four stars, I enjoyed this one less than the previous book in the series. That's mainly down to the main character, Charmain. She starts out unpromising, with no skills, no motivation to do anything but read, and a nature which she herself admits is not kind. But we've seen the author take unpromising characters (like the daydreaming hero of the previous book) and give them a convincing and gradual arc towards being effective by the end, so I wasn't too worried.

The problem is that the arc is too gradual, and doesn't really make it all the way to "here is an effective character that we like" before the book ends abruptly. In the previous book, the series heroes (the Pendragons) played an important role in the plot's resolution, but so did the viewpoint character. Here, the viewpoint character doesn't display a lot of agency, and acts more as a messenger and gatherer of information, while the significant steps that resolve the plot are performed by others.

Her relationship with her foil, Peter, also doesn't progress a whole lot through the book. She tries to be kind to him, without notable success, and he tries to get her to be practical, with slight success, and by the end they're almost as much at odds as at their first meeting.

The journey was fun; I always enjoy a magical house, though this one was more or less set-dressing, and if it had been a mundane house that wouldn't have affected the plot much. Charmain's adventures were entertaining, too, but ultimately I was less than fully satisfied with the resolution and her (lack of much) part in it.

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Thursday 1 July 2021

Review: Castle in the Air

Castle in the Air Castle in the Air by Diana Wynne Jones
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Entertaining and fun. The author has a distinctive narrative voice which, however, isn't intrusive, leading the reader through the adventures of an initially unpromising hero who develops believably through the book and steps up when it counts. The hero is male, but there are plenty of strong women around him, without whom he couldn't have achieved what he did.

Lots of twists in terms of plots and magical disguises, but I didn't feel that the hero was a puppet, despite being manipulated into his adventure. He had agency, which grew gradually through the narrative.

The story begins in an Arabian-Nights-style setting, but with significant elements of actual Arab culture removed or changed. For example, although we have carpet merchants, djinni, and a flowery, compliment-filled style of speaking, we don't have any reference to Islam - something that I wouldn't have thought could be removed from such a setting, but apparently I was wrong. Everyone drinks wine, a bet is made, and meat pies are eaten (as far as I'm aware meat pies are not a Middle Eastern thing). Of course, it's not intended to be the actual Middle East, just "inspired by".

A satisfying ending comes through courage, cleverness, determination and good intentions, which is how I like my fiction to end.


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