Friday 29 October 2021

Review: Under Fortunate Stars

Under Fortunate Stars Under Fortunate Stars by Ren Hutchings
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

There's a lot to like here. The editing, even in the pre-release version from Netgalley, was well above average. The main characters are distinct and well developed, both in backstory flashbacks and in the course of the main storyline, and they face varied challenges that test them, showing courage, determination and skill, and risking their lives for the greater good. All of that is exactly what I look for in a book.

Unfortunately, for me, all of this good stuff was countered by a huge problem: the fortunate coincidences. The title really isn't kidding.

Now, having one large fortunate coincidence that allows the plot to happen is a fault, but if everything else is good - and here, it is - I can forgive it. A large fortunate coincidence about every 10 or 15 pages, on the other hand, goes from a fault to a fatal flaw. And lampshading it by having characters talk about how lucky and miraculous it is that they have exactly the equipment, skills, knowledge, and people they need to make a highly unlikely and contingent escape from what amounts to a large sealed room in subspace - that doesn't help at all.

If the author hides a get-out-of-jail-free card up their sleeve and surreptitiously plays it at a key moment, that's cheating. But if the author openly writes out 40 or 50 new get-out-of-jail-free cards right there on the table in front of you and plays them every time the plot hits a problem... I don't even know what to call that.

I'll give an example in spoiler tags from a subsidiary part of the plot. (view spoiler)

It reads, to me, as if the plot wasn't outlined in advance but written by the seat of the pants. That's absolutely fine, and it can produce excellent stories - if the author unfolds the story organically from the initial seed of the situation, setting, and characters, rather than continually pulling things out of a location quite close to the seat of the pants in order to goose the plot back on track every time it becomes difficult. It seems like she's not even embarrassed about it, and she absolutely should be.

Incidentally, the blurb (as at the date I read it) claims that it's a "modern, progressive homage to classic space opera stories". As far as I can tell, this claim is made because two minor characters are a gay couple and two viewpoint characters are bisexual, which doesn't make much difference to anything. It's set far enough into the future that human names have all changed and you can't tell ethnicity from them; I think someone might have been described as brown-skinned once, but race is basically not a thing, and you could read any given character as whatever race you like. I can think of plenty of books that have more diverse characters and don't make a specific "progressive" claim.

Anyway: If continual massive luck in place of competent plotting is not a dealbreaker for you, this is otherwise a good book. But it was a dealbreaker for me, so much so that an otherwise four-star book drops all the way down to two stars.

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Friday 22 October 2021

Review: Ancestral Night

Ancestral Night Ancestral Night by Elizabeth Bear
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Elizabeth Bear, for me, is a lot like Neil Gaiman.

That is to say, she writes extremely well; she shows deep knowledge in her worldbuilding without making the reader drink from the exposition bucket; she is what Neil himself describes as an "otter," meaning that she won't do the same trick over and over (like a dolphin) but will do a different trick each time; and a lot of her stuff is too dark for me to enjoy, despite everything else being in its favour.

This is one of the exceptions to the "too dark" issue. It's certainly tense, and there are dark deeds in it, but it's an essentially optimistic story.

It's space opera, but not the tropish cut-price space opera that kind of semi-updates Andre Norton's Solar Queen novels, Buck Rogers, or ST:TOS. It's more in the mould of Jack McDevitt or Ian M. Banks (the influence of Banks is particularly evident in the names of some of the ships). There are aliens that aren't just humans in rubber suits. There's technology by which people can perform emotional regulation and otherwise work directly with their own brains, including recording and transmitting their sensory experiences, which is a theme that's interested me considerably for the past 40 years. There's a society that isn't the usual galactic empire (seriously, why would anyone revive aristocracy as a way to regulate a technological society?), or vague clone of some poorly-grasped version of democracy and/or capitalism circa the 19th to 21st centuries, or note-for-note unreflective rendering of current US progressive thought (if "thought" is the word I mean). It's post-scarcity, and collectivist, but not Marxist; and it's definitely not libertarian, the libertarians (pirates) being the bad guys.

The book falls into several parts, each of which is good in its own way. The first part is the most reminiscent of what I would call old-style space opera, with a salvage tug and its crew encountering a mysterious deserted alien ship, leading to the first-person narrator, Hainey, gaining unexpected powers through alien biotech. The second part is a tense, extended confrontation between Hainey and one of the pirates while they're trapped together on a completely different kind of deserted alien ship, in which, with considerable skill, the author shows the confrontation of their two worldviews without it ever being a tedious talking sock puppet show. The questions that are being raised about identity, self-efficacy, self-definition, responsibility to others, the structure of society, and the modification of the mind are all deeply personal to Hainey, and she goes through a number of shocking revelations and has to cope with them as best she can in a far from ideal state.

The final part is somewhat of a return to the manner and themes of the first part, though transformed by Hainey's experiences through the middle of the book (which is how a really good novel should work). There are two more impressive, and completely different, alien encounters, a tense fight, and a resolution (partly through action) of the questions raised in the middle.

It's a bravura performance. The prose is capable, with plenty of quotable moments. The worldbuilding feels rich and deep. The story is multithreaded and expertly woven. The ideas about the mind and society are not just a layer of paint applied without thought, but are closely integrated into the story, and they're also somewhat original and thought-provoking in their own right.

Definitely one of the best books I've read in 2021 (so far, second only to Piranesi), and highly recommended.

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Monday 18 October 2021

Review: Scales and Sensibility

Scales and Sensibility Scales and Sensibility by Stephanie Burgis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A fun and well-written Regency romance, featuring (small) dragons, initially introduced as fashionable accessories for young ladies.

The protagonist, Elinor, has strong stakes: not only her own survival after her parents lost all their money to a con artist and then died in a carriage accident, but that of her sisters, sent to different relatives in other parts of England. She has ended up with her mother's ineffectual sister and her aunt's angry, domineering husband and spoilt, cruel daughter. Very early on, she's unable to take her cousin's crap anymore, and despite being supposedly the sensible, practical sister, she walks out without a plan or anywhere to go.

This unpromising beginning leads to a laudably twisty and enjoyably farcical plot in which Elinor impersonates a woman with a lot more power and influence, and is put in the difficult position of trying to arrange for the man she loves to marry her awful cousin (he also has responsibilities to help his family, and his father lost all their money in the same scam, so Cousin Penelope's dowry seems like the only hope). Along the way, the love interest's dragon-expert friend learns something he doesn't like and didn't expect; Elinor's resolve, creativity, and ability to remain composed in a crisis are tested severely; her aunt finally finds her voice; and justice is done on a couple of different levels.

I spotted the big twist almost as soon as the relevant characters arrived (early in the book); how the whole plot would end up shaking out was eminently predictable, but I had no idea how the author was going to get there, and was more than willing to buckle in and enjoy the ride. There was a generous helping of coincidence involved in setting up the problem, but it was resolved by the determined and capable actions and the admirable character of the protagonist, so I have no complaints there.

Speaking of admirable character, I appreciated how the love interest recognised and honoured Elinor's ability to keep her composure and deal with difficult situations pragmatically and effectively (even if she didn't feel like she was doing so). That's an excellent basis on which to choose a life partner, I can personally attest, and a much more sensible one than you'll see in most romances.

The Regency setting (with the difference of the dragons) is well portrayed, and feels more authentic and better researched than a lot of "Regency" romances (many of which feel like modern people in cosplay with brief and inaccurate nods to Regency social realities). The editing, even in the pre-release version I had from Netgalley, has few and minor errors.

Overall, it's good stuff, and I'm looking forward to the sequels. I suspect that the passionate sister, Rose, will end up with Elinor's new brother-in-law, and that the dreamy academic sister, Harry, will be with the equally dreamy academic dragon expert, but I might well be surprised.

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Friday 15 October 2021

Review: Hollywood Heroine

Hollywood Heroine Hollywood Heroine by Sarah Kuhn
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Although I felt that the plot sometimes struggled to keep its head above the message, I did ultimately enjoy this one - not quite enough to make it one of my top books of 2021, though, and not enough to want to continue further with the series either.

The characters in this series have capital-I Issues, which they do work on, but which are, for me, overdramatic sometimes. They also have capital-I Identities, which are often closely related to their Issues, and which define them to a high degree. I commented early on in my reading that it was ironic that in a book where there was such strong objection to the main characters being treated merely as their identities and not as individuals, the more any character was functioning as an antagonist, the more they were defined by their identity and had no other discernable characteristics. Reflecting afterwards, I'm not sure that's true. I think the actual point being made might not have been "treat us as people, not identities" but "treat our identities as equally valuable," which is a subtly different message.

This inevitably flattens the characters and limits how much they can change. At one point, arrogant characters who have wronged the protagonist apologise to her, but it comes across as very stilted, as if the author couldn't fully imagine what a genuine apology from someone with that identity might sound like. And later, they just revert to their former impervious arrogance, having learned nothing from their experience. It's certainly true that there are people like that, but when essentially the entire supporting cast is that way, I'm left wondering: is this ideologically-driven prejudice ("people like that (or even people in general) simply can't break out of their identity") or lack of ability to write minor characters/antagonists that are not clich├ęs bordering on caricatures?

Anyway, that's what I didn't like, and why I won't persevere further with the series. The story itself, when you could see it through the message, is entertaining enough, with action, mystery (though the protagonist takes a good long while to figure out what is going on, even when it's pretty obvious), and the odd twist (which, again, are mostly predictable). There are strong subplots around relationships and working on the above-mentioned Issues, which in this case centre around the protagonist feeling like she needs to perfectly fix everything by herself and not having much capacity to handle change in other people. I commented on the previous book in the series to the effect that the personal stuff was almost more central than the outward plot, and that's the case again.

For its audience, this will resonate strongly and be something they love wholeheartedly. It happens that I'm not that audience, though, and so for me it fell a bit short.

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Monday 4 October 2021

Review: A Rose by Any Other Name

A Rose by Any Other Name A Rose by Any Other Name by Jamie Lackey
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is the second book by Jamie Lackey that I recently picked up from Netgalley because the premise sounded intriguing: Romeo and Juliet, only there's magic, and they swap bodies.

Unfortunately, like the other book ( Andromeda Snow, Superhero ), the execution didn't quite deliver on the promise of the blurb. The author seems mostly to write short fiction, and I often find novellas are novels that didn't get enough development; the plots are linear and the characters lack depth. That's the case here as well.

While the characters have the names of Shakespeare's characters, they are not those characters. Romeo and Juliet, for example, are young adults, not teens. Some of the redevelopment makes the characters more interesting - Tybalt is not just an angry thug, but loves cats and starts a relationship with Benvolio, for example; but because this is a PG retelling, the nurse and Mercutio both lose their bawdiness, the latter being transformed from a fan of sexual wordplay to an asexual, and the former becoming a bit of a background character. Part of the PG nature of the story is that the two young people in each other's bodies don't do any exploration of the body of the opposite gender that they suddenly find themselves in.

The retelling also turns the tragedy into comedy (in the sense that lovers are united), and this requires the implacable hatreds of the original to become quite easily placated after a bit of tension.

There are a few anachronisms; Juliet's bedroom contains stuffed animals, and she regrets not having a proper wedding dress or flowers for her wedding, both of which didn't come into common use until the mid-nineteenth century. A very good copy editor is going to need to go over it carefully to find all the missing words in sentences and the several homonym errors before it's published.

Overall, while it was entertaining enough in a light way, there's not much to it, and it doesn't do justice either to the source material or to the premise.

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Review: Andromeda Snow, Superhero

Andromeda Snow, Superhero Andromeda Snow, Superhero by Jamie Lackey
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Sadly, with a few notable exceptions, supers books are not that great. This one was better than average for the genre, but that's a low bar to clear.

Part of the trouble, I think, was that it's a novella, and really needed to be a novel so that the plot could be less linear and the characters more developed. It features a team of six supers, but only three of them get any depth at all.

The protagonist, a woman who has just woken up from a two-year coma to discover that she's quadriplegic but also telekinetic (so she can move her body, she just can't feel anything), has a backstory, but it's pretty generic, and I didn't feel like I really got to know what her past life was like. She deals remarkably well with the considerable emotional challenges she's presented with, which is good. She's completely incurious about what happened while she was in the coma that resulted in people suddenly gaining superpowers, and we never find out, which means the author doesn't have to come up with an explanation.

Her love interest, the team leader, a former sports star and movie actor, has some unexpected aspects to him that change how we see him in the course of the book. That's also good, but I did feel like he still needed more development to take him all the way into three dimensions.

The third team member who spends significant time onscreen has a minimal backstory, and is mainly there to be someone for the protagonist to talk to.

And then there's the villain, who has a cliched motivation and a plan taken straight out of the movie Zootopia.

I had a review copy of this book from Netgalley, so I won't comment on the copy editing except to say that it needs someone with a keen eye to spot missed-out words in sentences and a couple of homonym errors - hopefully that will happen before publication.

Overall, it had some potential, but that potential needed quite a bit more work in order to be realized.

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Saturday 2 October 2021

Review: Stargazy Pie

Stargazy Pie Stargazy Pie by Victoria Goddard
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This just makes it onto my Best of the Year list despite a blatant piece of lucky chance (the most blatant of several) used to get the not-very-effectual main character where he needed to be for the plot to work. The author tries to hang a lampshade on it and attribute it to serendipity being more common where magic is being employed, but she knows and I know that it's just shoddy plotting, a workaround for the fact that her protagonist is a bit wet even when he isn't falling into the river, and not bright enough to figure out how to get to where she needs him by himself, or to pull off the job of getting there.

The main character is supposed to be part of what seems set up to be a detective duo, but his employer, the redoubtable bookstore owner, who is not one of the duo, is the one who actually solves most of the mystery and drives much of the plot. She would have been a much better main character than him, but he's a young man and she's a middle-aged woman, so the weight of tradition is on his side.

The setting is unusual; it's connected to the setting the author has used for other books that are more epic fantasy, and epic fantasy has definitely occurred, elsewhere and some years previously and to the main character's father, but this is not epic fantasy. It's happening in what is explicitly the least dramatic part of the entire setting, a sleepy country town. It's technically post-apocalyptic, but the apocalypse hasn't actually had much impact here - just making magic unreliable and difficult to do, mostly.

So there's plenty that's unpromising. An ineffectual, rather pathetic, and not particularly clever main character (though with both courage and tragedy in his backstory); a setting that is out-and-out stated to be the least interesting place in the known world; a mystery (the pie of the title) that seems stunningly inconsequential. But we do eventually get cultists, magic, organized crime, high magic, midnight adventures, and a decadent dinner party, and it's told in an appealing style. Mr Greenwing, the MC (I hesitate to call him a protagonist because he's driven by events rather than vice versa), may not be up to much in many ways, but he bears many trials with some dignity and acts with unhesitating courage when called upon. He's a bit like a sickly Watson to his employer's blend of Holmes and Mrs Hudson. His friend Mr Dart is... necessary to the plot, but at this point hardly worthy of his series title billing.

The editing isn't too bad, just a few typos and a couple of homonym errors. (My notes are on the box set I got it in here, starting at 52%.)

Despite its flaws, I did enjoy the book and looked forward to my sessions of reading it, and I would like to read the sequels - though they're a bit overpriced for the quality of the first one by my standards, and I will wait for them to be on sale.

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