Friday 23 December 2022

Review: Hyvilma

Hyvilma Hyvilma by Gideon Marcus
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've enjoyed the previous books in this series, so when the author offered me a review copy of the latest one I happily said yes. (I don't usually review by author request, but I make an exception if I've favourably reviewed previous books in a series.)

Inspired by the classic space-opera "juveniles," this has plenty of action, adventure, lucky and unlucky chances creating opportunities for difficult, courageous decisions by the young cast, and (here's the modern bit) a strong sense of found family among a diverse crew. It stretched my suspension of disbelief a few times; Kitra definitely has Big Protagonist Energy, in that events distort around her in her strong narrative field so that the crew end up achieving great deeds that a small, young, rag-tag crew in a tiny vessel shouldn't be capable of. But if you relax and just let it be the over-the-top adventure that it is without thinking too hard about the credibility, it's fun and exciting.

It touches briefly on a political dimension (not obviously linked to current politics, don't worry), in that the crew encounter what seems to be a rebellion against the Empire, which some of them are not fans of, and have to pick a side; they do so, not based on any deep political analysis, but based on threats to people they care about, which... maybe deserved some more examination as a basis for decision-making, though it makes all kinds of emotional sense and so works well from a narrative viewpoint. It's a bit of a missed opportunity for extra depth, though, which keeps it out of the Gold tier of my Best of the Year list. This one hits firmly at Silver tier, meaning that it's a sound, solid piece of work that I enjoyed and doesn't have significant flaws.

Some excellent ink illustrations by the author's daughter complement the text.

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Review: The Art of Prophecy

The Art of Prophecy The Art of Prophecy by Wesley Chu
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is an example of a well-written book that didn't much match my taste, hence its position in the Bronze tier of my Best of the Year list.

With the exception of one consistent common error (using "may" instead of "might" in past tense narration), there are few copy editing errors even in the pre-release version I got via Netgalley for review. That's a good start.

There are several capable, and distinct, women as both viewpoint and secondary characters, which is great. And (the reason I picked it up) it subverts the Chosen One of Prophecy trope; the remaining viewpoint character is that Chosen One, and he's a pouty, spoiled teenage brat, and he doesn't get a pass for it. The women, including a woman in her later years, are a lot more interesting; this is often the case with stories involving entitled young men, but here they are also given most of the focus, something that often doesn't happen when there's an entitled young man around.

All of this is great, and is the reason (along with general competent craft) that the book goes on my Best of the Year list. The reason it only just gets on there, though, is the tone and the nature of the events.

I am very much not a fan of dark, violent stories, and this is one (though not lacking in noir humour). What's more, it's a dark, violent story in which the violence is always shown to be futile, the consequence of a corrupt system that pits the characters against one another and destroys innocent bystanders, and in which all of that suffering ends up making very little difference. Nobody wins. Nobody triumphs. At the end of the book, the characters are not in a notably better state (apart from the entitled young man having unlearned some of his bad habits and being potentially salvageable as a human being) than they were at the start; the various parts of the political situation that caused all the suffering are not resolved, or even much changed; and I was left feeling, "What was the point of all that?"

It's not all the way grimdark, in that three out of four of the viewpoint characters are, in their own way, decent people caught up in events too large for them (the fourth is an outright psychopath). But it's not far enough from grimdark for my personal taste, and I won't be following the series any further.

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Thursday 15 December 2022

Review: A Shadow Melody

A Shadow Melody A Shadow Melody by Brian Kaufman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a short novel that feels like a novella. It's written like a short story, with the kind of ending a short story often has, but it's really a novel that hasn't been given enough room to breathe.

Nothing is developed as much as I felt it needed to be. The romance felt cursory. The dark-fantasy element (I'd consider communicating with the dead dark fantasy, though it's presented in a context which otherwise suggests science fiction) felt inadequately led up to and not motivated enough by the prior parts of the story, which also felt disjointed, as if the child Harry we met at the beginning didn't have much continuity with the adult Harry. I think this is because while some of his abilities were the same, there didn't seem to be a clear emotional throughline from beginning to end. The twist also felt abrupt (and broke my suspension of disbelief: (view spoiler)).

I think it's the emotional throughline that I was really missing. I've reviewed a few books this year that I've put on my Best of the Year list despite significant mechanical issues, because they showed good storytelling ability and took me on an emotional journey that worked. This one is the opposite; there are relatively few and minor prose errors, but it's all chops and no gravy.

There are some missed opportunities, too, that could have created such a throughline. For example, while in college, Harry secretly admires his best friend's girlfriend; but after the two friends are both in World War I, she disappears from the story completely, even though she could easily have filled the exact role that is instead filled by the randomly-appearing and previously-unheralded Elizabeth. It's as if, with each time skip (child to college age, college to the war, war to several years post-war) there's a reset, and what Harry cares about, and the cast of secondary characters, are completely replaced. I think that's what makes it feel underdeveloped and too short; none of the sections is complete in itself, and there's not enough connection between them.

For me, this had potential, but needed more work to be satisfying.

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Monday 12 December 2022

Review: Johnny Lycan & the Vegas Berserker: Book 2 of The Werewolf PI

Johnny Lycan & the Vegas Berserker: Book 2 of The Werewolf PI Johnny Lycan & the Vegas Berserker: Book 2 of The Werewolf PI by Wayne Turmel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'm entering this series at Book 2, but there's enough previously-on that I didn't feel disoriented, probably helped by the fact that it takes place in a different city from the previous book and with a number of new characters, the key secondary characters from Book 1 playing only minor roles.

From a storytelling point of view, it deserves its place on my Best of the Year list. It's an urban fantasy with a noir feel, and the lycanthrope of the title is a classic noir PI; kind of morally grimy but generally well-intentioned, with a tendency to get badly beaten up, and well aware that he's not the smartest person in the story. In fact, Johnny claims that his other superpower, apart from being a werewolf, is that everyone assumes he's smarter than he actually is. He also claims not to be a good man, and arguably he's right, but also arguably he's wrong. It kind of depends on how you look at it.

Sent on what appears to be a simple retrieval of an item from Las Vegas for his boss in Chicago, he discovers that what was supposed to be a fake may not be; that his boss's rival for the acquisition of the item is going to stop at nothing to have it; that someone on the seller's side is working their own game; and that things are generally complicated, with a tendency to cause issues for Johnny in particular.

It's a well-told story with well-drawn characters. There is a problem, however.

I've noticed that books I get via Netgalley from Black Rose Writing are often worse than average in terms of basic writing mechanics like punctuation and grammar; that doesn't seem to be something they screen for when deciding what books to publish, and it also doesn't seem to be something they work on before releasing the books through Netgalley for review. I don't know if they edit them between that point and publication, but I really hope they do, especially this one. I thought I'd seen pretty much every way you could mess up the punctuation of a sentence, but this book managed to show me a couple that were new to me, as well as some I'd only seen once or twice before, and a nearly complete collection of the common ones. It's also weak on tense, sometimes using present tense where it should be past, or simple past where it should be past perfect.

I don't usually tag the books I get from Netgalley as "needs-editing" on Goodreads, because I assume (perhaps optimistically) that there's at least another round of edits to come after I see them, but this one is so dire that even a very good editor will struggle to remove all the issues.

Having said that, based on storytelling alone, it does make the Bronze tier of my Best of the Year for 2022.

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Review: Over the Moon

Over the Moon Over the Moon by S.E. Anderson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Inspired by The Wonderful Wizard of Oz , but in a space-opera setting. Rewrites of classic stories are hit or miss for me; this one mostly hit, with decent character work and a plot that doesn't rely too closely on its original.

The Dorothy character, Dora, has been raised on a corn-farming moon a long way from anywhere, told by her Aunt Emery and Uncle Wae that she is an illegal clone of the princess of the settled galaxy. She escapes danger in a ship that, flying automatically, crashes on and kills a technowitch, the daughter of the great mage, and must travel to see the mage in order to take him his daughter's locket and hopefully obtain a way to return home (where her family may be in danger).

Accompanying her are a woman with no memory who's been used by one of the other technowitches as a scarecrow while still in cryonic suspension; an apparently conscious AI; and a genetically engineered, lion-like super-soldier. Also Tau, Dora's pet mini AI, which she's constructed with her self-taught engineering skills, filling the Toto role.

There are plenty of antagonists along the way, which the group struggle against with courage and resourcefulness. The pacing, for me, was fine. There are several twists to the plot, too, which raise the stakes for Dora and end up setting up for a sequel.

There were occasional challenges to my suspension of disbelief. Not just the usual space-opera nonsense (easier to leave earth than fix it, lost the way back, wormholes AND cryonic suspension, single-biome planets, technology that's advanced in some areas (humanlike AI) but old-fashioned even by today's standards in others (printed books), technologically advanced genius engineers working almost alone in a location remote from the centre of things); at one point the super-soldier, carrying the rest of the group, climbs up a space elevator without a spacesuit in a time period that seems to be measured in, at most, tens of minutes, rather than the weeks that climbing any realistic space elevator would take, if that was even possible. (It's not made clear what the gravity is or the size of the bodies concerned, but synchronous orbit, which is where a space elevator needs to be anchored, is typically tens of thousands of kilometers high.) I guess when you're rewriting a children's fantasy that's more than a century old as space opera, a bit of unlikeliness is expected, but I did feel like the space elevator climb pushed it too far.

I read a pre-release version via Netgalley, and it contained a number of typos that spellcheck would not catch, because they were valid words, but not the words the author meant; these are particularly challenging for an editor to find, and I expect that some of them will make it into the published version. That, along with the sometimes unlikely details, drags it down to the Bronze tier of my Best of the Year for 2022, but that's still a recommendation, based on the strength of the storytelling.

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Wednesday 7 December 2022

Review: Mary Quirk and the Language of Curses

Mary Quirk and the Language of Curses Mary Quirk and the Language of Curses by Anna St. Vincent
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The author (who, full disclosure, is an online acquaintance; I paid full price for the book, and she didn't request a review) is starting to hit her stride with this series. This one, in particular, has a clear story problem, in fact several clear problems, that the protagonist is tackling in a sensible and effective way that involves a certain amount of necessary risk and conflict. There's a clear reason why she - a teenager - and some other teenagers are involved in dangerous operations that should normally be handled by adults; she has a rare ability, but she's not a Chosen One or any kind of damn princess, there's no prophecy (of which I'm very glad), and in general it's trope-averting rather than trope-conforming.

For example, it's more a cosy urban fantasy, rather than the usual noir UF, but none the worse for that. We do learn a bit more about the dystopian elven homeland and why so many elves leave it as refugees, but it's no YA dystopian full of factions. One of the best things about it, in fact, is that the class of teenagers have agreed to work together even if they don't always get on, rather than indulge in angst and overwrought conflict and love triangles.

It's the opposite of the "write to market" philosophy of analysing existing books to death and then trying to write the exact same book again, something I also refer to as "made from box mix" or, in extreme cases, "extruded fiction product," and as you can probably tell from my choice of terminology, I respect an author who's willing to be original and deliberately not go along with a bunch of tired tropes just because that's what everyone in the field is writing and reading. Inevitably, this will limit its audience (some people just like what they like and will keep reading it as long as authors keep writing it), but I hope it does find an audience of people like me who appreciate a fresh approach; a protagonist who's not spoiled, stupid, dramatic, or whiny; and just basic competence in the craft of storytelling.

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Friday 2 December 2022

Review: Hammered

Hammered Hammered by Lindsay Buroker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Lindsay Buroker hovers right on the cusp between formulaic and fresh. If you've read very many of her books, you know exactly what to expect from a new one, which is both their strength and their flaw. You'll seldom be disappointed, but you'll seldom be particularly surprised.

Having said that, she doesn't just write the same book over and over again, and certainly doesn't just rewrite other authors' successful books like so many indie authors do (her formula is, at least, her own); and although her characters' voices end up sounding very similar, their situations, backgrounds, and worlds bring the freshness they need to stay interesting. The books are well edited, with just a few minor glitches; the pacing propels the reader through the plot but leaves enough time for a few fun character moments; and in general they are, as I've observed before, the Subway of fast-food fiction.

This is the start of a new series in the same urban-fantasy world as Death Before Dragons. With the amount of mayhem involving supernaturals, and the number of people walking round with some non-human ancestry, it's increasingly implausible that the existence of magic, non-human sentients, and other worlds isn't generally known, but apart from that the worldbuilding is enough for its purpose. The protagonist, born on Earth to a dwarf mother and human father, doesn't know much about the magical side of her heritage, which means the author can be vague about how everything works and it doesn't seem too much like scenery flats. It helps that it's firmly anchored in Seattle, Washington as its main location.

Of all the familiar Buroker elements, I've always been least enthusiastic about the laconic, arrogant, violent, emotionally inaccessible slow-burn love interests (see The Emperor's Edge and Death Before Dragons for other examples), and I think I probably like this one least of all. I prefer a more even match of partners, as in the Dragon's Blood series, where both men and women are equally capable and equally insecure, and we get viewpoints from both of them.

Other than that, though, I did enjoy this series starter, and I'll probably pick up the others in the series at some point.

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Tuesday 29 November 2022

Review: The Watchmaker's Daughter

The Watchmaker's Daughter The Watchmaker's Daughter by C.J. Archer
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Now that I see the number of books the author has written, and how quickly, I'm a little surprised that this is not even more made-from-box-mix.

What I mean is that it's not completely constructed out of tropes, though it is fairly tropey. There's a great deal of Convenient Eavesdrop and its cousin, Accidental Discovery of Evidence. The woman doesn't actually go off alone to confront the villain with no backup and without telling anyone where she's off to and have to be rescued by the man, but there's a scene that isn't ten million miles from that trope.

I listened to an audio version, so I can't comment on the punctuation, but the author does consistently make the common error of using "may" instead of "might" in past tense narration. She also uses "posse" to mean a criminal gang, which it might conceivably mean today, but in 1890 it definitely meant a group assembled by law enforcement.

The narrator does a good job with distinguishing the character voices, and not a terrible job with the American accents; you can mostly tell they're meant to be American, and I can usually suspend my disbelief, though they don't sound like actual Americans any more than her male voices sound like actual males. She chooses an accent for the main character that's one social class too high for a small tradesman's daughter, but I think that was the right choice, in the sense that she generally comes off as one class too high to be a small tradesman's daughter (she's several times described as "gently reared"). In fact, she seems to have been photocopied from a Regency miss who's no older than 18, even though the book is supposedly set in the 1890s and she's supposed to be 28. She even carries a reticule, an accessory that went out of fashion in about 1820.

There's nothing that really locates us specifically in the 1890s, in fact; that's a decal, something we're told rather than shown. There is some evidence of a map having been consulted, but it's mostly generic Victorian London, probably derived from reading other contemporary non-British authors' books set in Victorian London, and it feels like we are several generations of copying away from anyone who has gone so far as to read anything actually written in that place and time. The story takes place more in front of scenery flats, or at best a green screen, than in a fully realized world.

The spec-fic element is also kind of ridiculous (view spoiler), which isn't compensated for by the "you can't fire me, I quit" technique (saying in the text that it's ridiculous).

Overall, average for a period fantasy, which is to say disappointing (I find most period fantasy stories fall down on at least two of the period, the fantasy, and the story, and quite often all three, plus basic mechanics). It will have an audience, but that isn't me, and I won't be reading more in the series or from the author.

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Review: The Man Upstairs and Other Stories

The Man Upstairs and Other Stories The Man Upstairs and Other Stories by P.G. Wodehouse
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A lot of Wodehouse's early stories, including these, are written to a basic romance formula, which has several variations.

After the meet-cute, the proposal (sometimes even the marriage) usually follows rapidly, but then ensues one of several complications:

- An obstacle, almost always lack of money, often combined with family opposition, until (usually) good fortune more than the protagonists' actions resolves the situation.
- A deception, intended to win over the other person, but it backfires and makes (usually) her furious, until (usually) he finally gets a chance to explain, and all is forgiven.
- Behaving in a particular way, which causes problems in the relationship, but a change of behaviour may or may not be an improvement.

A lack of suitability of one or both of the people for human relationships in general is not always considered a barrier to happiness ('Something to Worry About' definitely has something to worry about in the young woman, who is trouble waiting to happen, and I don't envy her ill-advised lover in the least; the man in the title story also comes off as a bit of a stalker), though there is one story in which the protagonist wins wealth and then spurns his former inamorata, having seen through her grasping ways, and in another story one of the men who is a fortune-hunter gets revealed for the louse he is. In both cases, the men are French; maybe there was some British cultural reason why Wodehouse felt that French men could be left without a HEA and it would be fine.

Sometimes someone else with an interest one way or the other involves themselves in encouraging or discouraging the match, with or without success, and this becomes a source of plot tension and comedy. Often, in the interests of an expedient plot, the couple don't spend much time together before deciding to spend the rest of their lives together, but sometimes spending more time together draws people closer, and sometimes it pushes them apart.

Massive coincidence sometimes plays a role, though less so than in most of his novels of the same period. In one story, though, the hero happens to encounter a man twice by complete coincidence, confides his troubles to him, and by a third and much larger coincidence discovers that he's the one person who can help him with his problem (which his own incompetence has partly created).

The author's trying a few different things, in other words, ringing changes on a very basic romance plot. His later and better-known works often incorporate some kind of romantic complications, though many of them are what I think of as "anti-romances," where the challenge is to break off an unwanted attachment. No doubt what he learned from these early stories, where romance is the focus, helped him in the later ones where it was more of a background element.

Only one of the stories involves golf, so marking it as "Golf Stories, #0.5" is almost as misleading as calling The Man With Two Left Feet and Other Stories "Jeeves, #0.5" (though not quite, since Jeeves barely appears in that one).

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Monday 28 November 2022

Review: The Man with Two Left Feet and Other Stories

The Man with Two Left Feet and Other Stories The Man with Two Left Feet and Other Stories by P.G. Wodehouse
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Minor and early Wodehouse, before he settled into his classic style. It's marked as "Jeeves, #0.5" on Goodreads, but it's really more like 0.05 - Jeeves is mentioned once in one story, and has a single unimportant line and no part in the plot. An early version of Bertie (possibly with a different surname; it's not made explicit) and his formidable and disapproving Aunt Agatha (fully developed, or as much so as she would ever become) also feature in that story.

This was a period when Wodehouse was writing for both the British and US markets, and it's sometimes difficult to get a feel for which market a particular story was aimed at, or even which of the two countries it takes place in. While of course there is humour, and the voice is recognisably Plum, these are often more sentimental stories than comic stories, almost slices of life; a good many of them feature a basic romance, something that was often a feature in his early work, and they end in some cases more with a resolution of the mood than a resolution of the plot. (This is an entirely valid way to end a short story.)

Several of the stories use the device, later a staple of sitcoms, of people in close relationships deceiving one another and/or trying to manipulate one another for what seem to them at the time to be good reasons, often in order to impress a would-be or existing romantic partner. This inevitably causes problems, but (as in sitcoms) all they need to do is confess the truth in order to be forgiven.

One story is written from the viewpoint of a dog, and pulls off a nice example of the innocent narrator who doesn't understand what's going on but tells us enough that we can figure it out. A couple of them involve people whose despair with life reaches the point of attempting, or planning to attempt, suicide, which is a lot darker than classic Wodehouse ever gets.

Overall, this collection shows Wodehouse still looking for his note, and sometimes hitting it and sometimes not. His early work shows a lot more variety of protagonists and situations than the idle-rich-country-house shenanigans that he's best known for. I feel like he made some of them work, but ultimately it was the sparkling prose and the farcical comedy that brought him his greatest success.

One thing he does usually manage to do, though, is make the reader (at least, this reader) care about the concerns of the protagonist, whoever and whatever they are: an ugly policeman, a mongrel dog, a dull bank clerk who can't dance, a young woman who fails to make it on the stage, a lazy gourmand, a couple of struggling writers, a baseball fanatic who misses New York, a world-weary young woman employed by a tea-dance establishment, or an unsuccessful detective. To me, this is a big part of his true genius, and what I most want to imitate from him: the ability to tell anyone's story and make it feel important because it's important to them.

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Friday 25 November 2022

Review: Leave It to Psmith

Leave It to Psmith Leave It to Psmith by P.G. Wodehouse
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Wodehouse in prime form in 1923, using characters he'd originally written some years before; Mike and Psmith first appeared together in 1909, and the inhabitants of Blandings Castle in 1915.

It does suffer from his besetting sin at this period of making blatant use of coincidence to get his characters together. Not content with giving his projected romantic couple two separate and distinct connections (she is an old school friend of his old school friend's wife, and they are both, for different and unrelated reasons, going to end up at Blandings Castle), he has them meet twice in London by total coincidence; once because she's standing outside the Drones Club, to which he belongs, taking shelter from the rain, and, struck by her appearance, he steals an umbrella to give to her; the other, not long afterwards, because they happen to be at the same employment agency at the same time.

And then, not content with that, he gives them a third (indirect) encounter and a second way for him to get to Blandings. But that way involves a risky imposture, and quickly gets complicated, in what would come to be considered the classic Wodehouse style: continual farcical misunderstandings and cross-purposes, interrupted by near-disaster, sprinkled with bons mots, and resolved by daring cleverness, all in a country-house setting populated by memorably eccentric characters.

Sure, he refers to a pistol as both an automatic and a revolver (he doesn't seem to have known the difference, and makes that error in at least one other book). But setting aside this and the blatant coincidences, which do have a function in building and complicating the setup, this is excellent work, tightly plotted and consistently amusing. The romance arc is (for Wodehouse) sound, with the initially reluctant woman won over through a combination of likeability and cool-headed resourcefulness, and the character work is fully as good as his best. It makes the Gold tier of my Best of the Year for 2022.

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Monday 21 November 2022

Review: Psmith in the City

Psmith in the City Psmith in the City by P.G. Wodehouse
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Having set up the character of Psmith in Mike and Psmith , which is worth reading as an introduction and in its own right, Wodehouse takes him to new heights in this novel from 1910.

School friends Mike Jackson and Rupert Psmith (the P is silent), instead of going on to Cambridge as Mike had hoped, are stuck working in the City of London for the New Asiatic Bank. Mike's father's finances have taken a turn for the worse, and Psmith's father gets fads, and the outcome is that they end up as juniors in an enterprise that neither of them has any real interest in.

There's an autobiographical element here. After leaving Dulwich College (which gets an affectionate cameo), Wodehouse was expecting to follow his brother to Oxford, but his father's pension from his civil service career in Hong Kong was paid in rupees, and suddenly devalued against the pound, meaning that Wodehouse had to go into the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank instead. He was not an enthusiast, and the picture of the New Asiatic Bank as a dull place where people were trained up to be sent to the East (so there was never actually much work to do, since the London branch was not the headquarters) is, I'm sure, drawn from life.

Psmith, with his calculating charm, soon makes himself, and by extension Mike, popular with their immediate bosses, though his charm offensive on the senior manager (who they've both offended at Psmith's family home before being sent to work for him) notably fails, and has to be supplemented by other forms of manipulation, including blackmail. Psmith claims (unconvincingly) to be a socialist, which happens to be the political position of one of the managers, and there's a satiric sequence involving socialist speakers, an angry mob, and an awkward dinner.

Overall, it's a fun ride. Mike is a simple-hearted, well-intentioned blunderer, and Psmith has to keep expertly extracting him from the soup, in a prototype of the Bertie Wooster/Jeeves dynamic (though these are not simply the same characters; Bertie, in particular, is much more outgoing and less principled than Mike). For the cleverness and the fun, it makes it onto my Best of the Year list for 2022.

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Review: Mike and Psmith

Mike and Psmith Mike and Psmith by P.G. Wodehouse
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Early Wodehouse (1909), in the period where he was still writing school stories. Judging by this sample, though, even his school stories weren't the cliched, tropish school stories he occasionally references within this book, but novels that an adult can enjoy over a hundred years later.

It's hard to imagine much that's more trivial than the adventures of a teenage cricketer from a privileged background in early-20th-century Britain, who resents being taken away from a medium-sized public school and put in a small one because of his poor academic performance, and refuses to play cricket there out of pique. And yet Wodehouse demonstrates the skill he was later to use with the similarly trivial (and often self-imposed) struggles of Bertie Wooster to make those struggles important to the reader because they're important to the character, and the character is, for all his faults, likeable. (Not that Mike is the kind of prize idiot Bertie is; he's just a decent solid chap of simple character.)

Playing a kind of proto-Jeeves role is Psmith (the P is silent, and he has newly adopted it to distinguish himself from other Smiths), a young man sent to the same school as the protagonist Mike for similar reasons; he has performed poorly at his previous school, in his case Eton. They form an immediate friendship, and Psmith quickly demonstrates his ability to charm and manipulate adults and fellow teenagers alike. He's a kind of anti-Ukridge. Ukridge is a scruffy confidence trickster who's always complaining about his hard life and whose grand schemes for his own enrichment at the expense of others never work out; Psmith, on the other hand, is impeccably dressed, urbane, unfazed, always spinning some line or other, and his schemes, which tend to be for the benefit of his friends as much as himself or more, succeed beautifully in a way that's enjoyable to watch.

The minor characters, as always with Wodehouse, are a delight, and this lacks the besetting flaw of a lot of other early Wodehouse books: the plot doesn't rely excessively on coincidence to make it progress. This is probably because it's set in the closed environment of a boarding school, which was, apparently, the reason J.K. Rowling chose a boarding school as her setting: you can make sure the characters keep interacting with each other without resorting to coincidence.

The events are trivial enough that I'm not quite prepared to put it on my Best of the Year list, but I am giving that distinction to the sequel, Psmith in the City .

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Review: Mary Quirk and the Reborn Realm

Mary Quirk and the Reborn Realm Mary Quirk and the Reborn Realm by Anna St. Vincent
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

After a second book where I felt the pacing was off, this is a strong return to form in this quasi-cosy, non-typical UF/magic-school series.

I say "non-typical" because most magic school stories are made from box mix and closely patterned after a certain very popular series, and this is not. To quote the protagonist/narrator:

"There are no class point systems, no goblets of fire, and no duels or death challenges. Magic gets the best results when a lot of people are working together."

I'm all about books where people working together can achieve great things, and even though this is a single-protagonist rather than ensemble-cast setup, the eponymous protagonist is definitely part of a team effort in which everyone has an important contribution. Some secondary characters are definitely more prominent than others; it's a largish core cast, about a dozen or so, and not everyone can get lots of characterization without it turning into an epic fantasy chihuahua-crusher. But there's a strong sense that the other characters have arcs going on too, whether it's Bianca's realization that her ability to detect when people are lying doesn't always protect her against their manipulation, Dillon's mysterious gift, or Mary's roommate's conflict (which she won't talk about) over the fact that she's destined to be tied to the school for the rest of her life as its Keeper. These slower-burn plots are moving away in the background, while in the foreground Mary is wondering where her family are and how she can rescue or protect them (she basically can't, yet), what the dystopian elves' invasion plot is and how she can foil it, and what the heck is going on with the fairy terrorists.

I've mentioned that the second book, for me, had pace issues - the action started too late. Here, that's not a problem. While the first quarter is largely setup and recap, that's expected, and there's soon an inciting incident which inevitably means that Mary and her friends, despite their youth, are going to be doing difficult and dangerous things because there's nobody else who can. Along the way, they unearth bits and pieces of the various mysteries that make up the larger series arc.

It's not the all-action urban fantasy of a Dresden Files or Mercy Thompson or Kitty Norville novel, but it's not trying to be. It's not brimming over with teenage angst and drama, either. While there are dramatic moments of peril and tension, a lot of it is quieter, with level-headed teenagers working steadily on the issues that are in front of them to the best of their considerable ability.

I personally enjoy that vibe, and I'm looking forward to the other books that will soon be forthcoming, both in the main series and with different protagonists in the same world.

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Thursday 17 November 2022

Review: Magic Dark, Magic Divine

Magic Dark, Magic Divine Magic Dark, Magic Divine by A.J. Locke
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've read a few books this year that are sound in terms of their emotional beats - so they make it to my Best of the Year list - but have significant flaws that drag them down to the Bronze tier, and this is one.

Let's get the copy editing out of the way first. A collection of the usual mistakes (excess coordinate commas, occasional missing past perfect tense, the odd dangling modifier, vocabulary errors, a hyphen consistently where it doesn't belong - in "magic-era" when it's an adjective and a noun rather than a compound adjective - and the odd missing or incorrectly placed apostrophe), plus one I haven't seen before: overcorrection of "laid" to "lay" when "laid" is in fact the correct verb. It isn't great; it isn't terrible; I've seen a lot worse.

The real issue I had was the worldbuilding. The main character (we quickly learn, so this isn't a spoiler) is from the should-not-be-hyphenated magic era, a period 300 years before when magical practitioners and magical creatures existed, thanks to a set of portals that periodically opened to let particular kinds of magic into the world. Those portals had to be closed to contain a dangerous, destructive monster during a kind of magical peak that happens every 300 years, and that peak is about to happen again. The protagonist, Pennrae, spent all but the last eight of those 300 years in magical stasis as a result of disobeying guidance from a Diviner, one of the types of magic user, for reasons that seemed good to her at the time (and are, like the whole story, emotionally realistic).

In some unexplained fashion, she has, in those eight years, completely mastered modern life, got hold of whatever identification documents are required for her to live and work in a modern city, and learned karate well enough to be an instructor. She comes off as a completely modern woman in every discernable way, apart from having a history in which she was a magical bounty hunter 300 years ago in a very different world, making her what I call a "decal character": her origin is stuck on her superficially, but everything else about her makes her feel like she's grown up in the modern world.

She lives, in fact, in New York, so called and completely recognizable as closely resembling the modern city of our world, except for an additional park, a few monuments, and some other remnants of the magic era. Instagram exists, there are cellphones, and in general this is almost entirely the New York that you and I could go and visit, with a couple of mostly cosmetic differences. The magic era, on the other hand, does not feel like our world's eighteenth century in any way whatsoever, and the placenames and even the geography don't seem to correspond to our world either. The geography, in fact, is very unclear. The portals (it turns out) were in New York, a fact which has somehow been forgotten, unlikely as this may seem. Pennrae's mother and sister, murdered by a warlord in the magic era, are buried in an old cemetery in New York for plot-relevant reasons, so was the warlord's territory part of the modern US (or whatever the country is called - we never see any more of it than New York City)? Or were they, for reasons never gone into, taken to NY for burial despite dying elsewhere? Pennrae's hibernation took place in Namibia, suggesting they were in Africa, and they are of African descent, but if so, why are they now buried in NY? I couldn't make any sense of that side of things at all.

Also, everyone appears to speak modern English in all places and times we visit, but all of the terminology of magical creatures and magic use feels vaguely a bit Latinate-ish, kind of like in a certain boy wizard book, but not actually derived from any language I'm familiar with. It doesn't strike me as African in origin, either. It feels just made up, with some influence from real European languages, but by someone who isn't a linguist.

What the whole thing feels more like, in fact, is a portal fantasy, in which the "magic era" is actually a different world, and the New York that so closely resembles our own is our own; but we're told it's a part of the same world's history.

So, on the one hand, we have a modern-seeming woman in a modern-seeming setting doing modern things. On the other, what feels like a completely invented secondary fantasy world. And between them, a bridging explanation that for me completely failed to match up or make sense.

Still, as I say, the emotional beats worked well enough that I do recommend it. I don't think I will be looking for future books in the series, though.

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Monday 14 November 2022

Review: In Search of Beira's Hammer: A Fantasy Novella

In Search of Beira's Hammer: A Fantasy Novella In Search of Beira's Hammer: A Fantasy Novella by Kristina Young
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Very mildly amusing. There's mainly one joke, which boils down to "Hipsters, amirite?"

It's short even for a novella, and therefore quite linear. The main character lives in Berlin, and is bored by how flat the area is, so she goes on a quest in Scotland for a legendary hammer that can create lakes and mountains. Early on, she connects with a local troll, and they meet several other supernaturals while searching for the hammer. Everyone has exactly one quirk, and no more depth than that.

There are a couple of dozen footnotes that explain Scottish and, later, German phrases, most of which are clear from context or would be well known to a native English speaker (which I believe the author is not); few native English speakers will need a note to understand "rascal," for example. The German for the Department of Forestry is translated in the main text immediately after the footnote that translates it, making the footnote redundant.

It has the feel of someone who's been told about Terry Pratchett, and that he made jokes in the context of fantasy and put in footnotes, but who has either never read him or hasn't understood anything about his approach.

In the pre-publication version I received via Netgalley, the author also makes pretty much all the mistakes it's possible to make when punctuating dialog. I don't know how much editing it's going to get between now and publication, but I suspect not enough.

For me, unsuccessful.

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Friday 11 November 2022

Review: Greenmantle

Greenmantle Greenmantle by John Buchan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'm putting this one on my Best of the Year list for 2022 despite its issues, because it is a rousing good adventure story. Set (and also written) during World War I, and climaxing with the actual Battle of Erzurum, like the author's previous and better-known The 39 Steps it features Richard Hannay as the hero and narrator, making his way through numerous and varied perils. Here, however, he himself is the one involved in espionage in foreign nations, rather than opposing the espionage efforts of foreign agents in his own nation.

Like the previous book, the plot is rife with coincidences that enable it to progress (Buchan said of the first book that it was intended to fall into the genre of "shockers" that are only just barely believable). Some of those coincidences do get Hannay into trouble rather than out of it, and his choices do matter - for example, he makes unnecessary enemies of a German and a Turk, in both cases because they revolt his honest British soul, and both of them turn up again, largely by coincidence, as nemeses later.

As a book of its time, it does have elements that offend our sensibilities more than a hundred years later, particularly about colonialism and race. Several terms are used that are now considered highly racially offensive, and the author uses that unconscionable rhetorical trick of referring to ethnic groups as if they consist of only one person - "the Jew" or "the Turk" is like this or that. The implication is that these populations are monoliths, and their character can be summed up in a sentence. Ironically, he also makes the claim that British people, and especially Scots, are unusually good at getting inside the skins of people who aren't like them and understanding them - unlike, say, the Germans. If you can't set that aside and just enjoy the book for its action (and I don't blame you at all if you can't), this is not a book you should be reading. Having finished it, I understand why the person who recommended it to me said "Read it without reading about it; it's more than the sum of its parts."

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Monday 7 November 2022

Review: The Thirty-Nine Steps

The Thirty-Nine Steps The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Possibly a re-read; I have a vague idea that I did read it many years ago, but can't be certain.

This is the best-known of Buchan's books, probably because of the Hitchcock film, which I have seen (but which doesn't bear much relationship to the book). The author says in his dedication that he ran out of sensational fiction and had to write his own, but he's too modest. It's a fine early example of the thriller genre, which drives the reader through a number of well-paced, varied action scenes. Hero Richard Hannay, entrusted with the secret of a sinister conspiracy by a random neighbour who is subsequently murdered, goes on the run both from the police (who think he did it) and the conspirators (who are setting out to steal important British naval plans). It looks, early on, as if it's going to be anti-semitic, but it turns out that's just the odd prejudice (called out as such) of the murdered neighbour.

There's a good deal of coincidence and unearned trust used to keep the plot in motion and Hannay out of the hands of his pursuers, starting with the inciting incident itself; Hannay apparently just gives off a vibe of being trustworthy, and he keeps encountering people who he trusts and who trust him enough to help him without question. One of these people happens to be the godson of an important person in the Foreign Office, who happens to be one of the very few people who knows the secrets that are being targeted by the conspiracy. But it isn't all managed by coincidence; Hannay protagonizes too, with plenty of clever and daring escapes and impostures, and figures out the plot - which is not what his original informant said it was - using considerable intelligence. His background as a mining engineer in Africa, who has knocked around a good deal, fought in a small war, been friendly with a wide range of sometimes dubious people, and survived on the veldt, helps him a lot. He's also brave, though he doesn't think he is and several times confesses to being frightened (but then goes on and does the right thing anyway).

It's very much of its time, in that British people are the best kind of people, foreigners are dastards, women are scene extras, and people trust each other because they're the right kind of people and a certain standard of behaviour is expected of them. But it's also a well-constructed thriller with a somewhat more rounded hero than a lot of the contemporary pulps could offer.

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Review: Magical Artifacts Institute: The Complete Series

Magical Artifacts Institute: The Complete Series Magical Artifacts Institute: The Complete Series by Isa Medina
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Maddie Dover: Too stupid to live, too lucky to die, too cute to stay mad at.

So, basically a cat. She certainly has the curiosity and the always landing on her feet parts down.

To be fair to her, she does also come up with some plans that could be described as clever and brave, not just ones that can be described as naive and foolhardy (though some of those, too, particularly early on). She has a fun voice, and is an appealing and always well-intentioned character, who makes allies readily, an important trait in an urban fantasy protagonist (especially an underpowered one).

Her love interest is the usual reserved, brooding, emotionally defended hot action wizard, so we don't get to see much depth to him. But we do get to see her rescue him, more often than vice versa, so there's that.

The copy editing at first looked pretty clean, which is why I picked it up even though it seemed like it would be fairly light and insubstantial and potentially constructed mostly out of tropes. I suspect (I could be wrong) that a very good editor has been over a not particularly great manuscript and, inevitably, missed some things; there are a large number of places where idioms are fumbled, not quite the right vocabulary word is chosen, or a sentence changes grammatical direction partway through, but at least the punctuation is mostly in the right places. It was a light read, though not as made-from-box-mix as I feared, and I did enjoy it enough that it wins a spot in the Bronze tier of my Best of the Year list.

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Tuesday 1 November 2022

Review: The Tangled Stars

The Tangled Stars The Tangled Stars by Edward Willett
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I came for the space opera heist, but stayed for the voice, which is the kind of wry, noirish, bantering voice I particularly enjoy.

The heist, as it turns out, is not the main focus of the book; it goes off, certainly not without a hitch, but with no more of a hitch than anything else in the story, taking up a relatively small portion of the runtime. The whole book strikes me as having been written according to the principles of Scene & Structure , which propels the characters through the story and keeps up an excellent level of tension as they constantly face obstacles and challenges. The crime boss who is the main antagonist gets a viewpoint, and is thoroughly despicable, but not at all a cartoonish villain; cutting to him every so often and showing us something that he's doing that the protagonists don't know about and that will be bad for them, or alternately vice versa, makes the most of the literary technique of dramatic irony to maximize both the drama and the irony.

I've thought for years that having a character who was a combination of an advanced AI with a domestic cat would be fun, and it turns out that I was right. But he is far more than comic relief, becoming a key player in the unfolding events.

Everyone, in fact, is more than just their archetype plus their plot role; the characters are three-dimensional, they all want things which they can't have and strive to get anyway, they all have backstories that inform the action, their relationships with each other are important, and in general the character side of things is expertly handled. Add that to a well-paced and twisty plot and just the right amount of worldbuilding (a lot of the technology is sufficiently advanced to be indistinguishable from magic because, as the character with the first-person viewpoint advises us, it was created by AIs and humans don't understand how they did it, which is a great handwave), and this becomes an all-around triumph. One of the many moments of "Oh crap, what next?" comes at the end, priming the reader for the next volume, and I will be eagerly awaiting it.

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Wednesday 26 October 2022

Review: The Frith Chronicles: ARC I

The Frith Chronicles: ARC I The Frith Chronicles: ARC I by Shami Stovall
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This hits my Deserves Better Editing Goodreads shelf, because it's a well-told story with an appealing protagonist, but the copy editing is scruffy (especially the first book).

The protagonist, Volke, was my favourite feature, and made up for some other weaknesses. He's a genuinely good and honest person, who has absorbed the life lessons of his excellent adoptive father and is seen by everyone around him as the reliable one, though he is still young and makes a young man's mistakes from time to time. He's determined to prove that his parents, who were both criminals, don't define him, and he does that very well through a series of exciting and varied challenges, including fighting pirates, contending in arena battles, and attempting to track down and foil the source of a magical plague.

There's quite a complicated love polyhedron among the young cast. Zaxis, the annoying rich boy jock (who gradually learns to be a partially decent person and a good fighter who thinks as well as acts), likes Illia, Volke's adoptive sister; so, I suspect, does her friend Hexa, though as at the end of the book Hexa hasn't said anything yet, and maybe that will never become anything (a good many potential threads never develop). Illia likes Volke, but he sees her as a sister. Atty, the privileged girl from their island who is always expected to be perfect, likes Volke too, and vice versa, but they're both shy about it and the relationship is very slow to develop. And Zaxis, the last of the group of six apprentices, doesn't seem to want any romantic relationship, least of all the marriage his awful, distant, demanding parents have arranged for him (though that, too, is a thread that, as of the end of Book 3, has dropped out of sight).

The world is an interesting and, as far as I'm aware, original one, in which humans become arcanists (able to practice magic) by bonding to any of a large number of mystical creatures, who are then able to mature, making the relationship mutually beneficial. Supposedly, the arcanist and their eldrin (bonded creature) become more like each other as they work together, though that's something we're told rather than shown. Illia's eldrin, an amusingly self-aggrandizing little ferretlike being, is nothing like her, and she doesn't become boastful or bombastic either. The other eldrin mostly don't have much personality, including Volke's, which, given that Volke is the main character, is a bit of a fault. The human characters (other than Volke) deepen very slowly for the most part, and the worldbuilding does the same; we do learn more about how the human/eldrin relationship works, and that some eldrin breed like natural creatures while others are magically created under specific circumstances, but the world still feels more like scenery flats than a fully realized setting. The creatures include mythical monsters from very specific cultural backgrounds in our world, which is occasionally jarring, as well as a few completely made-up ones.

I reviewed the first book on Netgalley before it was published, and took that opportunity to point out a number of copy editing issues (mostly missing past perfect tense, which is a particular weakness of the author). Some seem to have been corrected subsequently, perhaps because of that feedback - but perhaps not, since several of the same errors (like "hydra's" used for a non-possessive plural) are still there.

The second and third books are somewhat better, though there are still some issues with apostrophes in plural words, and a few basic homonym or near-homonym errors, including the classic "horde" for "hoard". A good many dangling modifiers, too.

All of which means that, although I do enjoy them and want to continue reading the series, I will be waiting for them to be on sale, since (for me) they are overpriced for books that lack polish in their copy editing and don't deepen the characters or setting very much over the course of three books. They are fun, though, and make it to the bronze tier of my Best of the Year list for 2022.

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Wednesday 19 October 2022

Review: Knife Children

Knife Children Knife Children by Lois McMaster Bujold
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've not been enjoying Bujold's recent work as much as her earlier stuff, and in part it's because she's backed off what used to be her signature writing approach: Look for the thing that would cause the most trouble for the character, that they least want to happen, and have that thing happen. However, she does do that in this book at least once (even though it derails this book's main character's plan to connect up with the main characters of the series, making that a tease that's never paid off).

This is definitely a softer Bujold, but the focus is on the relationships, on working through the consequences of a youthful misjudgement from a perspective of more maturity, and in those terms it works. Her characteristic running of the external dialog and events side by side with the main character's internal reflections on them mostly works well, though in the audio version I listened to, there are a couple of places where it wasn't immediately clear what was dialog spoken aloud and what was internal reflection.

All in all, good for a new Bujold, and though that isn't the high praise it would once have been, it does get it into the bronze tier of my Best of the Year.

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Monday 17 October 2022

Review: Observer

Observer Observer by Robert Lanza
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I picked this up largely because it was co-authored (or, I suspect, "entirely written, based on ideas by Robert Lanza") by Nancy Kress, who I knew to be a highly competent SFF writer. I have a couple of her books on the craft of writing, and they're excellent, so I expected a well-told story. Nor was I disappointed. (I'll note that there's at least one other award-winning writer whose writing advice I respect, but whose actual fiction I've never enjoyed or been impressed with, so the two skills don't inevitably go together.)

It needed someone with the skill of a Kress to make this a readable story, honestly. There is a lot of exposition, and a less competent author wouldn't have been able to make it interesting. Also, the premise doesn't make a great deal of sense if you think about it in any depth, so it needed an author who was able to keep up a constant patter of misdirection by telling an engaging story with well-drawn characters.

That premise starts with some features of the observer effect in quantum physics and boldly makes the observer central - so central that the theory is that observers create the universe, rather than vice versa. Building on this, a Nobel laureate in medicine (who is dying of cancer), his old friend the theoretical physicist whose theory I have just outlined, and a tech billionaire have come together to attempt to enable people who are implanted with brain stimulation equipment and linked up to powerful software to create new universes by "observing" them in a kind of virtual reality within their own minds. In these universes, they are able to create counterfactual situations: for example, the door of a room in the Caymans, where they are based for legal reasons, opens into the theoretical physicist's house in Britain in a universe where his wife did not die 15 years before, but is still alive. Not a simulation of her - actually her. Never addressed is where the version of him from that other universe is, why his wife isn't surprised to see him, how he gets from the Caymans to the house in Britain by walking through a door... There are a lot of holes in the basic idea, in other words.

Although Kress is known as a "hard" SF writer, meaning she makes a lot of use of actual science, she's not one of those whose characters are simply cameras exploring the clever setting. She tells a story, and her characters read like people. The main point of view belongs to Caro, the Nobel laureate's great-niece, a neurosurgeon who, after a failed attempt to hold a more senior male surgeon to account for drunkenly groping her at a party (which led to her being heavily trolled on social media by toxic men), is prepared to take a chance on what sounds like a weird and maybe even borderline unethical project implanting the brain stimulation devices. (view spoiler)

Through most of the book, Caro remains skeptical about the reality of the experiences people have through the devices she implants, and this provides a good point of tension and makes her character feel strong and distinct, given that she's surrounded by true believers.

There's a solid B plot involving Caro's sister, who's dealing with a disabled child and also a non-disabled child who is finding her younger sister's needs and the demands they place on her mother increasingly difficult to bear. There's also a romance subplot for Caro, which gives her a conflict between relationship and career, and several friendships of different kinds with other members of the project. It's all very solid storytelling, and it's where the book shines. It doesn't have the all-too-prevalent issue of contemporary or near-contemporary SF, where the characters are alienated people with no values who don't particularly want anything but just have to react to events. Caro comes through as a character with multiple dimensions, needs, desires, and the ability and determination to work towards what's important to her.

From an unpromising and dubious premise, then, Kress builds a highly readable novel with engaging characters, a feat for which she should be commended.

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Review: Advent 9

Advent 9 Advent 9 by T. Alan Horne
My rating: 0 of 5 stars

Despite the claims of its late editor Dave Farland, this book doesn't invent a new genre of "Superpunk". Supers novels have been a low-profile but prolific subgenre of SFF for years; this is only one of 52 books on my Goodreads "supers" shelf (at time of review), and certainly as far as I read - admittedly not quite halfway - it was similar enough to the others that it clearly belonged there. (And there are several large series that, for one reason or another, I haven't read.)

It's better written and better edited than most, though by itself that's faint praise; supers novels, like steampunk, seem to attract incompetent writers for some reason. Let me be clearer: It's well written, and apart from a couple of dangling modifiers, some mispunctuated dialog and a few other minor glitches, even the pre-publication version I got for review from Netgalley is clean from a copy editing perspective.

So why did I stop reading it? Simply because the blurb (at the time I picked it up) did not alert me to a key fact: as well as a supers story, this is also a horror story, featuring several psychotic mass murderers or serial killers and also battling terrifying monsters in a slimy subterranean labyrinth, and that is not something I personally enjoy reading.

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Tuesday 11 October 2022

Review: Fool's Game

Fool's Game Fool's Game by R.M. Dorn
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

While the storytelling and overall entertainment factor definitely put this book into my Best of the Year list for 2022, the scruffy presentation and decal-style characterization drop it down to the bronze tier.

First, the good. This is a fresh-seeming take on both portal fantasy and the battle royale, with a sympathetic main character. The pacing is good, and the story kept my interest throughout; I never considered going off and reading something else instead.

Unfortunately, though, the polish wasn't there to make it a truly excellent book rather than just an entertaining one. Individually, the issues weren't enormous: the author apparently not knowing that the convention is to use single quotes inside double quotes, for example, or forgetting to type the word "a" in a few sentences, or putting in extra coordinate commas between non-coordinate adjectives. But there were a lot of them (about twice as many as I see in a book on average, and it's a short book), and some of them were easily avoidable, such as the typos that spellcheck should have caught, or the inconsistencies in the notes on the game.

This is a game world, though it's not precisely game-lit. The game (we know, but the characters don't) is being played by the daughters of Destiny, four deaf goddesses who play with cards and dice, but the cards are people and creatures who battle for the goddesses' amusement in a pocket-dimension arena. (The frame narrative of the goddesses is prominent early on, drops out for the entire middle of the book, and comes back briefly at the end.) The human Cards have been recruited from mostly the 17th century, and this is where my suspension of disbelief broke down a little; none of them ring true to me as people from that time period, and even though they've spent time in the real world in the interim, I just didn't believe that would have made them into the people we see. Their historical origin is what I call a decal - something that we're told about them, but that remains purely superficial and feels inauthentic. In a similar vein, one of them is Scots, but his accent comes and goes unpredictably. I think he's mainly Scots when he's saying things that the author knows how to put in Scots dialect, but when he's saying things that a modern person would say, he speaks in unmarked modern English.

It was also mightily convenient that the randomly selected team that included the audience proxy - the woman from our own time recruited as the wild-card Fool - included only nice people with cats, dogs, and owls as familiars, rather than the nasty, ruthless people with snakes and bats who were the opposition. There was a character whose status was indefinite, who had otters, but mainly in order to provide a romantic triangle and some extra tension. Clearly, the heroine is bad at choosing men, perhaps in part because she either takes relationships too seriously or not seriously enough; this doesn't cause as much trouble for her as it probably should.

Overall, the emotional arc was sound and satisfying, and it hit the beats well. The finer details, though, were not finessed enough to get more than a bronze-tier rating.

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Monday 10 October 2022

Review: The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It's impossible to summarize this unique (and by unique I mean there's only one of them; I shouldn't have to say that, but I do) book, but here is an attempt to summarize it anyway:

A hapless but amiable 18th-century gentleman is so given to digressions that he hilariously fails to write his own autobiography, being too busy talking about his father, his beloved uncle, the local clergyman, the backstory of how he was born, his uncle's obsession with fortification, his father's crackpot theories about everything, and various minor matters arising from the foregoing, not to mention satirizing contemporary medicine, theology, and life in general, and at one point narrating his trip into France as an adult, so that (apart from the trip into France) he barely appears onstage in his own "Life" at all, and we never even get to find out for sure who his "dear Jenny" is or what their relationship consists of.

Because the author had an 18th-century gentleman's education, and I have a modern one, a lot of the detail goes over my head; I have small Latin and not a lot more Greek, and I haven't read most of the books he had read (and from which he apparently quotes freely without attribution at times, in contexts which recast the significance of the words in a satirical manner). But the enjoyment I do get is from the characters, including the character of Tristram, who, even if he's almost entirely absent as a subject of autobiography, is extremely present as a narrator. Uncle Toby is portrayed with tremendous affection, and his servant Trim with almost as much, as is Parson Yorick; all three are the kind of genuinely good-hearted and generous, if sometimes foolish, men we also encounter in the works of Henry Fielding. Tristram's parents are depicted brilliantly: his father, who never has the same opinion as anyone else on anything, but always comes up with his own nonsense and is incapable of being practical, and his mother, who infuriates her husband by always placidly agreeing with whatever he says, no matter how it contradicts what he said immediately before, and never even asking him to explain things she doesn't understand. It's a fun cast to spend time with.

Some of the nonsense, especially later on, did become a little tedious to me (it might have worked better for its original audience). But I'm glad I re-read it; I read it first in my father's set of Great Books of the Western World when I was a teenager (so, about 40 years ago), and didn't remember much about it except that I'd enjoyed it and it was exuberant and odd. I don't doubt that I understood even less of it then than I did this time round, but it jumps around so much that you don't get a coherent sense of very much anyway, so that is almost a feature rather than a fault.

And there, in further imitation of the book, I stop abruptly.

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Thursday 29 September 2022

Review: The Voice In All

The Voice In All The Voice In All by Audrey Auden
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Although this was well done in general, a few factors kept it out of the Platinum tier of my Best of the Year list, which it otherwise nearly deserved.

Firstly, the genres. There are too many of them. It's mainly fantasy, and YA, but it's also post-apocalyptic and dystopian. Those last two are genres I usually avoid, but the premise seemed fresh enough that I gave it a go anyway, and was glad I did. The degree to which it's dystopian also comes into question in the course of the story, but I'd argue that a society that denies a whole demographic access to the arts and sciences is at least somewhat dystopian, regardless of how nice and well-intentioned the people who run it may be (and are we sure they actually are?).

Four genres would have been OK, but by the end it also seems to be cosmic, and maybe cyberpunk, and at that point it started to break down a bit for me. By the end of the book, we've had a lot more questions than answers. It doesn't end on a cliffhanger, as such, but it does go from a relatively straightforward fantasy post-apocalyptic YA dystopia to something a lot more complicated that I, for one, struggle to define, and while that may set up the series to be more than it would otherwise have been (if the author can pull it off), for this specific book I felt that less would have been more.

Something else that broke down a little for me was an element of the worldbuilding. In the society depicted, women (through, essentially, magical drugs) are more or less immortal, or at least unaging and very long-lived, but men live normal lifespans. The women engage in arts and sciences and run the society, while the men do the farming, hunting, gathering, essential crafts like smithing, and suchlike. Only a few women give birth to children, and there seem to be as many girls as boys.

This means that for the tech level depicted, the pyramid is the wrong way up. Our society is able to have fewer than half of its members involved in producing food, because of multiple technological breakthroughs, but the tipping point of fewer than half of, say, US adults being involved in agriculture came not much more than a hundred years ago. Unless there's tech we never saw in the book, the economics make no sense. That's a minor point, because it's background, rather than foreground, but it did bother me.

(Since I posted this review, the author has graciously responded to say that is very much something that's on her mind, and there is an explanation to come; she's also incorporated a few elements of that explanation into this book (involving the women growing some of the food), in response to my critique - which I guess makes me a quantum reviewer, affecting things by observing them. I'll leave the critique in place, because the changes - which I've seen - don't fully answer my issues, and I did have questions on first read, but please note that this isn't a result of the author's ignorance about how food works; it's just not her focus in this book.)

On the upside, even in the pre-release copy I received via Netgalley for review, the copy editing has few flaws, apart from the way the author punctuates when interrupting dialog with a tag. (You don't start the second part of a sentence with a capital if it's the same sentence, and if it's a different sentence, you don't follow the tag with a comma.)

The story itself, and the characters, engaged me, despite the usual YA thing of:
Adult: Don't do this thing! Bad consequences will inevitably ensue.
Young person: I accept that completely and it makes total sense.
[Young person then proceeds to do the thing, because it seems like a good idea at the time. Bad consequences mostly fail to ensue.]

I'm giving it a lot of critique, but that's partly because it engaged me enough to think deeply about it. It invited thought; it wasn't just made from box mix, it had some originality to it, and it was well executed and had the odd moment here and there of reflection that made a point with some depth. The flaws, while they did combine to lose it a fifth star, were individually minor enough that they left me still enjoying it, and overall I recommend it and look forward to reading a sequel.

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Tuesday 27 September 2022

Review: Alora Factor: Invasion of the Realm Jumpers

Alora Factor: Invasion of the Realm Jumpers Alora Factor: Invasion of the Realm Jumpers by D.L. Williams
My rating: 0 of 5 stars

This was a DNF. I took a chance on requesting it via Netgalley, because I try to read books by people who are different from me, and I've come across a few real gems that way. After all, I'm a fan of fantasy and SF, which are all about the experiences of people who are different from me in one way or another.

What didn't work for me was that the blurb and the prologue promised me a supers story, but when I got to the first few chapters (they're labelled "Book 1," "Book 2," etc., but they're chapter length and work like chapters, so I'm calling them chapters), it was all early YA concerns, mostly-mundane detail, and a flood of cultural touchstones (pop-culture figures, brands, and the like). Now, I don't like a mass of mundane detail when William Gibson does it. I don't enjoy a flood of cultural touchstones when someone of my own generation, like the author of Ready Player One , does it. So it's not the specific details or the specific culture that I have a problem with; it's just that there's too much of it for the amount of story I was getting, plus it wasn't what I came in looking for.

On the positive side, the copy editing, even in the pre-release version I got for review from Netgalley, is a lot closer to fully professional than most books I get from there (and a good few I get from elsewhere).

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Friday 23 September 2022

Review: War in Heaven: A Novel

War in Heaven: A Novel War in Heaven: A Novel by Charles Williams
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Williams' first novel, and it shows.

The characters and plot seem to be there not to be the best version of themselves or to form a well-structured novel, but to carry the theology/cosmology, which they sometimes only do a mediocre job of. The archdeacon is one of Williams' saintly characters (like Sybil in The Greater Trumps ) who is so surrendered to God that he has no other desire, and it's difficult to write a novel (in the Western tradition, at least) where one of the central characters isn't driven by desire for something that their flaws hinder them from getting. He actually doesn't care that much who has the Graal (as the Holy Grail is always spelled), and since the entire plot is driven by it as a McGuffin, this is a bit of a problem.

The duke has clear desires, but is ineffectual in convincing others to go along with him in pursuing them; the publisher's clerk never really emerges as a fully realized character with any kind of agenda of his own, and I kept confusing him with his colleague. His colleague is paralyzed by his own psychological issues, and ineffectual in the face of the villain's attacks on his wife (who is mostly so conventional as to be without personality) and four-year-old son. Nobody seems to have more than the most basic concern about the son's wellbeing - not his parents, who consider him a nuisance; not the Archdeacon of Castra Parvulorum (the Camp of the Children, so called because Caesar had supposedly handed captured British children back to their parents there, a bit of resonance that goes underutilized), who doesn't express any alarm when he hears that the villain, who he knows to be a villain, is spending so much time with the boy. (The villain's agenda is to abduct the child and raise him as a powerful occultist, for no obvious reason except, presumably, to wind up the novel's tension, but since nobody on the good side knows about this or seems to be all that attached to young Adrian, the threat is a lot weaker emotionally than it might be.)

The villain is literally a satanist, of the black-mass-and-seeking-for-power variety (not the real-life Church of Satan, which I don't think existed when this was written). His confederates are a Greek, who has reached such a pinnacle of occult involvement that he is indifferent to most outcomes, and a Jew, who only wants to destroy everything. I had the uncomfortable sense that their non-Englishness was definitely intended to be part of what made them sinister. The fact that the black-hearted, murderous villain is also a publisher raises questions about how much Williams enjoyed his job working for a publisher, though perhaps I'm reading too much in, and he was just writing what he knew.

This jumble might still have worked, because Williams is an excellent prose writer, but, faced with characters who are either unmotivated or ineffectual, he resorts to a deus ex machina (or, at least, an angelus ex machina) to resolve such plot as he has managed to create. The prose then goes into a mode that I think of as High Williams, becoming heavily poetic, theological, and other-worldly, a vision of spiritual realities filtered through human perception. Lewis does a decent job of it in his Space Trilogy, and other Williams books do it better than this early work.

Overall, then, this one shows more potential than it achieves. Sometimes, as writers, we have to do a thing badly in order to learn to do it well, and this seems to be that book for Williams. It's not without its charm and not without its strengths, but there are multiple ways in which it could have been better.

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Monday 19 September 2022

Review: Them Bones

Them Bones Them Bones by Howard Waldrop
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Tinged with a Cold War-era world-weary cynicism about humanity in the mass that still finds room for an easy friendship between two characters widely separated by culture, this is a structurally ambitious novel from a writer better known for his short fiction. Whether the structure really works, and whether it's more complicated than it needs to be, could be debated. Because part of the experience of reading it is figuring out what the heck is going on, and that's a process that isn't completed until late in the book, I'll put some of the discussion of the structure in spoiler tags.

There are three threads, presented in interweaved chapters. Thread 1, with which we open, is an archaeological dig in Louisiana in 1926, where a 14th-century Native American mound yields anachronistic horse (and eventually human) skeletons, some killed with even more anachronistic cartridge rifles. It's told in close third person, following the viewpoint of one of the archaeologists, as they race to uncover the secrets of the mound before rising floodwaters destroy the site forever.

Thread 2, in many ways the main thread, is the first-person account of a scout, Leake, sent ahead of a larger force through a time portal originating in a nuclear-war-ravaged 2002 (in the future at the time the book was written). They were supposed to end up around World War II and to try to change history so that World War III didn't happen (exactly how is never made clear, and nobody demonstrates any skills that would materially help to do so; the plan is more an excuse to kick off the story than it is a fully developed idea in itself). It quickly becomes clear that where Leake is is not World War II Louisiana, but it takes him some time to figure out exactly when he is.

Thread 3 consists of records of the rest of the force, who didn't end up in the same location as Leake. (Here, I have to note that the ebook version which I read does a very poor job of the formatting of the daily military reports on the status of the personnel, so that they are mangled and hard to interpret. There are also a few editing errors, some of which may have been corrected since I first bought the book, judging from the fact that they were correct in my Kindle highlights when transferred to Goodreads.)

From this setup, things proceed as follows:
(view spoiler)

Overall, the result comes off as an ambitious novel that should maybe have been two novels, where the justification for the way things happen falls apart if you think too hard about it. The two stories themselves are well told, and Leake, in particular, is an engaging character to spend time with, though both stories have downbeat endings. Despite its faults, it does just barely make it to four stars for me on the quality of the writing alone (setting aside the worldbuilding issues and the questionable structural choice, and despite the tone not being my favourite), but it is definitely well below the threshold for my Best of the Year list. I'm probably being a bit generous with the fourth star, but I did like Leake.

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