Monday 31 January 2022

Review: Prison of Sleep

Prison of Sleep Prison of Sleep by Tim Pratt
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Not a bad book, but not, for me, as good as the first in the duology. While the dual timeline (from two different viewpoints) was well handled - I only got seriously lost once - and there were plenty of tense moments just prior to switching the POV, the resolution of those moments often turned out to be linear and perhaps too easy, occasionally facilitated by fortunate coincidence. One of the characters easily succeeds at something (view spoiler) that a much better equipped, more organized and larger group had not seemed capable of doing, for example.

Still, it was an enjoyable ride, and the revelations of what was going on behind the scenes, and the provision of new antagonists, worked well after the resolution of the previous book. This is a highly capable author, but it's not his absolute best work.

I received a copy via Netgalley for review.

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Sunday 30 January 2022

Review: The Young Visiters, or Mr. Salteena's Plan

The Young Visiters, or Mr. Salteena's Plan The Young Visiters, or Mr. Salteena's Plan by Daisy Ashford
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Unconsciously hilarious story by a 9-year-old girl who has some very interesting (and in parts surprisingly sophisticated) ideas about how adults live, interspersed with moments of intense naiveté.

(view spoiler)

It deserves its status as a classic gem. Honestly, I've read books by adults that made less sense and weren't as well plotted, but the naive moments give it the comedy that sets it apart. It reads as if young Daisy had got hold of a few contemporary adult novels and absorbed as much as her nine-year-old mind was able to of the style and approach, then reproduced them with a slight funhouse-mirror twist.

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Thursday 27 January 2022

Review: Silverlock

Silverlock Silverlock by John Myers Myers
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A difficult book to rate and review, because of its mixture of strengths and weaknesses and also its mixture of tones.

Both a strength and a weakness is that the author has a rich background in classical fantastic and adventurous fiction (from the Epic of Gilgamesh on forward), and references it continually. The first-person narrator does not have this background, and never seems to figure out that he is wandering around a literary landscape; his university degree is in business management. I have some background, but not nearly as much as the author, and while the book works without knowing who all of the minor characters are exactly, sometimes (especially near the end), when the namedrops are coming thick and fast, I did feel at sea, and also as if I was in the presence of a show-off who was setting out to make me feel ignorant. Some of the characters are combinations of several legends in one person, which makes it even more confusing (and difficult to look them up on Wikipedia).

The story does not follow a conventional plot. (I think I detected signs of the Hero's Journey, which I am not a fan of, but it wasn't too obtrusive.) It's a picaresque, "the episodic adventures of a rogue," and involves the viewpoint character facing various adventures, in the course of which he kills several people (in self-defence, but sometimes if he'd been smarter he wouldn't have been in the situation where he needed to), steals a few things (out of desperation, but the same if-he'd-been-smarter caveat sometimes applies), and commits adultery (this was just a straight-up choice on his part and gets no defence from me). He has an old-fashioned outlook on violence and women, not a million miles from, say, Ernest Hemingway, which won't go over particularly well to most present-day audiences.

The events of the story are not just wandering from scene to scene, though, at least not all the way through. He does have goals at various points. The first is to reconnect with his companion, who is every famous bard ever in a single character. Once that's achieved, they set out to help their friend Lucius Jones win his love. This character seems to be a blend of Lucius from the Golden Ass (since he's turned into a donkey at one point, and has to eat roses to change back to human) and possibly Tom Jones, since, while longing after his beloved, he has no hesitation in sleeping with other women if the opportunity presents itself.

The quests escalate as the book goes on, and the third one is to reach the Hippocrene Spring, which makes people into poets when they drink from it. This one is given by an oracle, and involves a descent into the underworld, modelled on Dante's Inferno but guided by "Faustopheles," seemingly a combination of Faust and Mephistopheles. This is where the tone takes a very dark turn, as Faustopheles preaches nihilism and hopelessness, illustrating his points with the characters they encounter. It was a lot more philosophical than the earlier parts of the book, and I felt it didn't fit well; the author, perhaps, was putting down on paper his own darkest thoughts in an attempt to exorcise them.

The character of Silverlock is not a philosopher, and starts the book alienated and uncaring about others, but he picks up some ideals of behaviour from a few encounters along the way (notably including Sir Gawain). While he is never a highly admirable character to me, he does improve, albeit from a very unpromising starting point. He's capable of being fair-minded, a faithful friend, brave, and a protector of the innocent.

The setting never gets much of an explanation, and is a strange mishmash of the whole of literature up to the 19th century (there may have been some early-20th-century material that I missed). Different regions are from wildly different historical periods, and people wander between them, but there doesn't seem to be, say, trade in weaponry, for example. It's meant to make symbolic sense rather than literal sense. Also, the characters that Silverlock encounters always seem to be partway through their stories - the key moments of the stories are happening just as he arrives - which again follows story logic rather than any other kind of logic.

The edition I read has numerous typos (see my notes), including a good many missing quotation marks, and some consistent errors. For example, the author uses a comma after "of course" when it's not required, and doesn't use a comma after "Why" as an exclamation beginning a sentence. I didn't notice any vocabulary errors, though, and the interpolated poems are well executed, in contrast to so much fantasy poetry. Apparently this book is a favourite with filkers (people who perform fandom-based songs), and I can see why.

Overall, it's an odd book, and I can see why some people love it and others hate it. I neither loved nor hated it; for me, the best parts made it good enough to make it to my Best of the Year, but in the lowest tier because of its patchy nature. It did make me consider reading (or re-reading) some of the source material, though.

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Monday 17 January 2022

Review: The Knave of Secrets

The Knave of Secrets The Knave of Secrets by Alex Livingston
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In a setting where everyone in several different cultures is obsessed with gambling games, this book focuses on a crew of crooked gamblers who end up in the position to maybe do some good.

There are a number of viewpoint characters, including two of the crew but also several other players in the complicated plotting and counter-plotting; at times I found myself wishing for a diagram, which I suspect the author has probably drawn. There's a kind of cold war going on between two powerful nations, an Empire and a Queendom; a third nation, an island where the story is mostly set, is coming increasingly under the influence of the Empire. Because landowning grants voting rights there, and because immigrants from the Empire tend to be prosperous and often buy land, the Parliament is heading for a "tipping point" where it may vote to become part of the Empire rather than remaining independent, which will shift the balance of power between the superpowers. Meanwhile, a supposedly apolitical order of wizards (to which two of the gambling crew used to belong) are keeping secrets that could upset the balance in a different way.

All of this sets the plot in motion, as one of the crew wins a game where people play for secrets, and somehow (it's never explained how) the man he beat knew the wizards' secret and gambled with it. They decide they have to try to keep the current détente between the Empire and the Queendom and the independence of their island, and prevent a war from starting, using their gambling abilities and some unreliable magic.

(view spoiler)

The issues in those spoiler tags, and my difficulty in following the overly convoluted plot at times, took this book down to the bronze tier of my annual Best-Of list, but it does have a good many strengths and shows potential. I particularly enjoyed the worldbuilding, the different games and the feeling of deep and rich cultures. I also found the idea of a nation (one of the two superpowers) where the wealthy gain access to formal power by funding public works to be an interesting one, though I'm not sure how it would arise or how long it would be enforced in reality.

I received a pre-publication version from Netgalley, which needs some work for typos (mostly words missing, added, duplicated, or mistyped) and the occasional vocabulary glitch, but is otherwise largely sound.

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Friday 14 January 2022

Review: Ought to be Dead

Ought to be Dead Ought to be Dead by Scott Warren
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Because of a glitch on Goodreads that didn't associate this one with his other books, it wasn't until I reached the end that I realized I'd read one of Scott Warren's books before ( The Dragon's Banker ). The same strengths and, sadly, the same weaknesses are on display here.

Strengths: this is an engaging, well-told story with a competent protagonist whose heart is in the right place (even if it doesn't beat much anymore). Garth Nix has taught me that I don't mind reading about necromancers if they're working on behalf of the living, and so I took the risk of picking this up, knowing that it could be darker than I prefer. It wasn't, and it had a gentle humour that added to the enjoyment. It's a premise I haven't seen a thousand times before, and it hits the emotional beats well in a soundly-structured plot.

Weaknesses: I got a pre-publication version from Netgalley, and I don't know how much copy editing it is going to get between now and publication, or how good the copy editor will be. But even a very good copy editor who is excellent at punctuation and has a better-than-average vocabulary will only be able to do so much to compensate for the fact that the author is truly terrible at punctuation, commits most of the other common language mistakes, and makes a lot of vocabulary errors (not only using the wrong spelling for numerous homonyms, but using the wrong word altogether in many cases). Having written multiple books, and obviously being committed to writing as a significant part of his life, this author ought to invest some time in improving his grasp of basic mechanics, because the many, many issues seriously detract from what is otherwise a good book.

It makes it to my Best of the Year list, but in the lowest tier. Without the dozens of copy editing issues, I would have rated it a good deal higher. Again, many, even most, of these may well be fixed by publication, but when there are so many, some will always slip through even the best of copy editors. Far better not to make the mistakes in the first place.

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Monday 10 January 2022

Review: A Man of Means

A Man of Means A Man of Means by P.G. Wodehouse
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Early Wodehouse (first published 1916), with a collaborator, but showing much of what was later to be the distinctive Wodehouse comic style. Even the scheming butler at the end sounds like Jeeves, though he pulls something that Jeeves might not have.

It's the story of a deeply undistinguished nebbish of a clerk who begins the book by asking his employer to lower his salary, since once it hits 150 pounds (per year, presumably) he will have to get married to his landlord's daughter. Being of weak and conventional character, he has got engaged to her despite not at all wanting to get married, because it seems to be expected of him.

He then, in the first of a number of coincidences, wins a large amount of money, and takes one of his few decisive actions in the whole book in order to escape the marriage.

This is a collection of six stories, each of which puts him in a different comic situation and (usually) extracts him from it by luck. For the first three stories, his capital increases each time, and several times he again finds himself expected to marry someone he doesn't really want to (who is after his money; he has no other perceptible attractions, or indeed qualities) because of his weakness of character.

Now, a main character who lacks agency (and personality, and much of a spine) and a plot driven by coincidence are usually fatal flaws for me, but somehow these stories make it work. The comic situations are so absurd, and the secondary characters so entertainingly depicted, that, like the little boy in Princess Bride with the kissing scene, I didn't mind so much.

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Review: Spark the Fire

Spark the Fire Spark the Fire by Melissa McShane
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A fresh take on a dragon story, with the dragon (a young adult, only 60 years old) as the viewpoint character. She connects with a human prince, and together they fight crime - or rather, they fight a plot to bring about a war between their two peoples. There are multiple different challenges to overcome in multiple different ways; secondary characters who are not just one-note; and main characters who are admirable and competent, but also out of their depth much of the time.

In other words, it's what I would expect from Melissa McShane: entertaining, fun, suspenseful, sometimes amusing, heroic, capably plotted, well-edited apart from a couple of minor slips, and all in all thoroughly enjoyable. I'll definitely be following this series.

It doesn't have quite that extra level of depth and high polish that is my threshold for five stars, but it makes it to my gold tier at the top of the four-star range.

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Review: A Matter of Death and Life

A Matter of Death and Life A Matter of Death and Life by Simon R. Green
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I described the first in this series as "a quick read, pacey," and this is another quick read, but didn't work quite so well for me. It's one of those heists that relies on a large number of things going right, and the plot feels linear and too easy. The plan isn't especially sophisticated to start with, and the twists almost all consist of exactly the same thing: someone who has done bad things now wants to atone, and so transforms from an antagonist into an ally. Of the several people who might have betrayed the crew, some did not, and the one who did was the most obvious candidate. Magical artefacts occasionally develop unforeshadowed plot-convenient extra abilities at key moments.

It's Simon R. Green, so there are plenty of violent, nasty people getting their comeuppance, as well as other violent, nasty people who are trying to be better than that. In this alternate version of our world, not only is the supernatural everywhere, but it's apparently much easier to get away with killing someone, even if you don't make the body disappear.

There are a couple of odd spellings, one of them being "masque" for a mask (the usual English spelling is also used for another mask, and a "masque" in English is usually a masked ball, so I'm not sure what the point of the variant spelling is). The editing is very good, though, even in the pre-publication copy I received from Netgalley for review.

I didn't enjoy it as much as the first book, which I thought was more clever, but I did enjoy it enough that I would read future books in the series.

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Monday 3 January 2022

Review: The Coming of Bill

The Coming of Bill The Coming of Bill by P.G. Wodehouse
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

First of all: not a comedy, although it does start out with some satire on the eugenics movement. In case you're happily unaware, eugenics was a pseudoscientific idea very popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, especially in the US, until the Third Reich took it to its ultimate extreme and it became (rightly) tainted by association. It then quietly faded from mainstream popularity, though it remains a fringe idea, and a subtle, unexamined influence on some other political philosophies, even today. Instead of attributing measurable differences between the rich and the poor, and between different races, to the very different social and economic conditions they lived in, eugenics attributed them (in the absence of any real understanding of genetics much beyond the Mendelian level) to heredity. In other words, the kind of people who wrote books about eugenics believed that the reason they were, in general, healthier and wealthier and less likely to be in jail or mentally challenged than the poor was not that they had lived all their lives in better conditions, but that they were inherently a better kind of people. The appeal of this idea is fairly obvious.

[Plot spoilers follow; I'm putting them in spoiler tags, but without knowing what happens my commentary won't make as much sense.]

(view spoiler)

Honestly, most Wodehouse romances would, in reality, have led to marriages like this; the couples get engaged, and then married, on minimal acquaintance, and some of them are intensely unsuited to marry one another, perhaps even to marry anyone (the couple from The Girl on the Boat comes immediately to mind). Wodehouse had never explored this domestic-drama territory previously, and didn't again. There were other writers doing it better, and there were things he himself did much better (namely farcical comedy, of which there are only hints in this book).

We do get the well-drawn supporting characters; Wodehouse's supporting characters, early on, have much more personality than his principals. Steve, the ex-prize fighter, is especially wonderful, and the awful Aunt Lora is also vivid and believable. The couple themselves have, by the nature of the plot, a bit more interiority than his usual romantic leads, but they, and especially the wife, remain more types than individuals. Still, Wodehouse is very good at depicting types, and showing their absurdity, and even if he gets a lot more serious with it in this book than ever before or since, there are still flashes of his wit and facility with language throughout.

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Sunday 2 January 2022

Top Books for 2021

This is my eighth annual roundup of the books I read in a year. Earlier instalments are here: my top 32 books for 2020, my top 20 books for 2019, my top 19 books for 2018my top 17 books for 2017,  my top 16 books for 2016 (actually only 15), my top 15 books for 2015, and my top 14 books for 2014. I now have a summary page that links to all the roundups.

Note that these are books I read in those years, not books published in those years - though these days I am reading a lot from Netgalley, which are often advance copies of books that haven't yet been published, so a higher proportion of my reading is books published in the year I read them (or, occasionally, even the following year).

The total of the first six years comes to 100 books, and I added 32 last year and 31 this year, for a running total of 163. I've stopped arbitrarily tying the number to the last digits of the year, which I did up until 2017. If a book is good enough for me to recommend, even with caveats, it goes into the Best-Of list. Five-star books automatically go on the list, and it also includes a selection of four-star books that I think are worthy of mention. As of the end of 2021, I'm starting to be less inclined to award four stars to books that I don't feel belong on the list, but there are still a good many in this year's reading. Out of 54 books that I gave 4 stars to, 26 (slightly less than half) made it onto the list.

No Most Disappointing Book of the Year anti-prize this year, even though it's an odd-numbered year. So far I've awarded one in 2017 to Andy Weir's Artemis, and another in 2019 to William Gibson's Agency, both books by popular authors that I know can write good books, but on this occasion, in my opinion, did not. I didn't read many books by really popular authors this year, and the ones I did read were not disappointing.

Not appearing on this list are 11 early works by P.G. Wodehouse that I read in editions from Project Gutenberg. Eight of them (Picadilly Jim, Uneasy Money, The Prince and Betty, Love Among the Chickens, Ukridge, Jill the Reckless, Indiscretions of Archie, and A Damsel In Distress) earned four stars; none is quite good enough to make it to the Best-of-2021 list, but several came close, and if you enjoy Wodehouse's humour and haven't read these, it's worth popping over to and downloading them. Their besetting fault, which is a fault I've noted in a lot of books I've read this year, is that they often rely on unlikely coincidence to get people into position for the plot to happen - though that's a criticism I've leveled at Dracula, too, and it doesn't make that a bad book.

Also not quite making it to the list are the first four books in a newish series by Lindsay Buroker, Elven Doom. This isn't because they are bad, or because I didn't enjoy them, but I couldn't quite bring myself to add them to my Best of the Year because, like all of her books, they're formulaic. The formula, at least, is largely Buroker's own - she's not just making them from box mix, it's her own recipe, even if it's the same recipe all the time. If books were food, these would be Subway: still fast food, and you know going in exactly what you're going to get, but it's well prepared, enjoyable, and reasonably nourishing, and a bit different from what the other fast food outlets are serving.

Overall Statistics

I read and rated 90 books in total in 2021, up from 82 in the previous year. I started and abandoned a few books that aren't reflected in the total, as usual, and there are some cookbooks I partially read that also aren't counted.

Here are my figures in a table:

5 star4 star3 star2 starTotal

The 5-star book number is lower than average (in fact, about half the average number), the lowest of any year other than 2018, when I also only read 5 5-star books. The 4-star number is about the same as last year and not far below the average, even though I've started marking more harshly. The growth is in the 3-star and 2-star books; I read more books this year than last year, and because I'm being less generous about awarding four stars, a greater than average number got the 3-star rating. Also, I downgraded some to 2 stars that might, in other years, have been given a reluctant 3. One of these would easily have been a 4-star book if it hadn't relied on unlikely coincidence after unlikely coincidence, literally dozens of them, with no in-universe explanation or justification or any evidence of embarrassment on the part of the author. It was the first novel by a young writer, so I refrained from giving it a Most Disappointing Book of the Year award; that's reserved, as I said before, for books by writers who have previously proved that they can do better.


Where did I get these books? This year, 41 - the same number as last year - came from Netgalley: none of the 5 five-star books this time, but 22 of the 54 four-star books (including 12 that made it to the Best Of), 18 of the 29 three-star books, and all 3 of the 2-star books. A somewhat disappointing outcome from Netgalley this year; last year, 17 Netgalley books made the list, including 3 5-star books. I thought I was being more picky about what I get from Netgalley, too. Maybe people are getting better at blurb writing but not at novel writing, so I pick up the book and am then disappointed. I do like to give an original-sounding premise by an unknown author a try from time to time, because I've found gems that way before, but it's hit and miss.

Fourteen books came from Project Gutenberg, the 11 Wodehouse books and three others, none of which made it to Best of the Year.

Twelve came from my Await Ebook Price Drop wish list on Amazon, where I park the books I hear about from various sources (mostly Fantasy Faction, Fantasy Literature, my Goodreads friends, and occasionally and want to read, but that are (for me) overpriced. The New Zealand dollar is especially weak against the USD at the moment, and I only read most books once, so I'm willing to wait until they're on sale. Of these 12, 3 were 5-star, 8 were 4-star (including 5 that made the Best Of list), and one was 3-star.

Eight came from BookBub: 1 five-star, 3 four-star including 1 Best Of, and 4 three-stars. Two of the BookBub titles went on my Needs Editing shelf, 0 on my Seriously Needs Editing shelf, and 3 on my Well-Edited shelf. (I don't usually mark the state of editing on the Netgalley books because they are often pre-publication, meaning they will probably receive more copy editing before release. Honestly, a lot of them need a lot of work.)

One came from the library; as with last year, it was a book by Jim Butcher, for which I wasn't prepared to pay the publisher's ebook price, and it made the Best Of.

Amazon's algorithm recommended me 1 5-star and 4 4-star books, all of which made the Best-of list, and one 3-star book (though it also recommended me a lot of books I had no interest in whatsoever). I got two books from OpenRoad's Portalist newsletter, which I unsubscribed to during the year; the books I was getting were not good quality or well edited, and neither of them made the Best-of. One book I picked up because I know the author on the Codex writers' forum. The remainder were either found browsing Amazon or were continuations of series I'd read previously.

Top-Rated Books

So, here is my list, ranked this year for the first time in tiers, and approximately in ascending order within each tier. Your taste may well vary, and on a different day, my rankings within the tiers might vary too.

Links are, as usual, to my Goodreads reviews.

First, the bronze tier: books that had notable flaws (or sometimes just weren't quite in the centre of my taste), but managed to entertain me enough to earn a spot on the list despite this.

31. Stargazy Pie, Victoria Goddard. Even though excessive coincidence was needed to steer the rather ineffectual main character to where he needed to be for the plot, and even though he wasn't the right focus character (since there was a much more competent and interesting middle-aged woman who was doing a lot more protagonising), there's still a lot to like in this quiet village fantasy with an epic fantasy implied in the background.
30. The Gryphon Mage Trilogy, Rachel Neumeier. I bounced off the first book in 2012, but on my second attempt, enjoyed the whole trilogy enough to give it a place on the list. Though it takes itself just a little too seriously, occasionally resorts to convenient coincidence to drive the plot, and has a number of holes in its worldbuilding and logistics, the three quite different unusual women who are the main protagonists in the three volumes are enjoyable to read about, and at its best it's compelling and dramatic.
29. Map's Edge, David Hair. Adventurous, exciting, suspenseful, and full of tension, though it suffers from some unnecessary fortunate coincidences and a bit of shonky worldbuilding. Unfortunately, the sequel didn't work as well for me.
28. Glass Coffin, Gabby Hutchinson Crouch. While it's difficult to have fairy-tale characters who are also well-rounded, this book eventually does go some way towards achieving that feat, and it has a good heart.
27. Sky Tribe, Sabrina Chase. Third in the Mage Guardians series, and not the strongest; the stakes are lower, and the characters from the previous books are sidelined, but it's still a fun adventure.
26. A Wizard's Guide to Defensive Baking, T. Kingfisher. A combination of predictable and unpredictable, maybe driving home its point (that if a YA heroine is having to step up, the adults have neglected their responsibilities) a little bit too hard and too often, but overall charming and enjoyable.
25. Mercurial, Naomi Hughes. On paper, not a book I should enjoy, as it's dystopian and features torture and cruelty, but there was a pretty strong promise of a redemptive arc made early on, and the author fully delivered on it.
24. A Grimoire for Gamblers, Amanda Creiglow. A sensible, capable young woman protagonizes intelligently, bravely and effectively in an urban fantasy plot that avoids the usual cliches. A little dark for my usual taste.
23. The Enchanted Forest Chronicles (Box Set), Patricia C. Wrede. A lightly sketched fairy-tale setting backgrounds capable and unconventional characters dealing courageously with dangerous, if sometimes inept, antagonists.

Now for the silver tier: sound books that unquestionably belong on this list, but aren't among the very best I read this year.
22. The Last Mage Guardian, Sabrina Chase. This was a re-read as a runup to reading the third in the series. The prior read was in 2013, the year before I started the annual Best-Of lists. A competent young woman in an alternate Europe in something like the 19th century has to step up and take care of a dangerous magical enemy.
21. Dragonhunters, Sabrina Chase. This was also a re-read as a runup to reading the third in the Mage Guardians series, of which this is the second. The prior read was in 2014, and it didn't get one of the then-limited number of spots in my first annual Best-Of list, but it makes it on reread. I wish more steampunk was this well executed and lived up to the promise of its premise so well.
20. Half a Soul, Olivia Atwater. First of three rather delightful Regency fantasy romances in this series, with a bit more social awareness than a lot of Regency romances, and a strong noblebright plot.
19. The Dream and the Muse, Jake Burnett. An unexpected gem of a YA portal fantasy, with a highly unconventional and ingenious heroine discovering her potential, guided by a thoroughgoing (but ultimately chaotic-good) rogue.
18. The Prince of Secrets, AJ Lancaster. Volume 2 in the Stariel series, of which the first made my 2018 list, and better than the first book in that it's less predictable. (Still read them in order, though.) An appealing romantic pairing facing a wide range of problems with courage and intelligence.
17. Castle in the Air, Diana Wynn Jones. The sequel to Howl's Moving Castle, set in an Arabian-Nights-inspired milieu, with an initially unpromising hero who steps up when it counts, and lots of twists and turns.
16. Miss Bennet's Dragon, M. Verant. Essentially AU Jane Austen fanfic, but well executed; strips Pride and Prejudice down to its chassis and builds quite a different, but successful, story on top.
15. The Court of Mortals, AJ Lancaster. Third in the Stariel series, a solidly executed romance plot with plenty of fae and mortal politics and family drama to be faced and overcome by the principled, courageous, intelligent and determined protagonists.
14. Ten Thousand Stitches, Olivia Atwater. Second in a series of fae Regency romances, well-paced and with an unusual focus on servants rather than gentry. The appealing, good-hearted characters work hard for their resolutions.
13. The Wire Noose, Erik Buchanan. Fantasy police procedural, with good pacing, sound mystery writing, and a capable, determined and compassionate young female protagonist.
12. Longshadow, Olivia Atwater. A strong mystery plot balances a strong (LGBTQ) romance plot in this third book in the Regency Faerie Tales series.

The next few books are the gold tier, not far short of five stars.
11. Goddess of the North, Georgina Kamsika. Though let down by both its cover and its copy editing (the latter losing it a fifth star that it otherwise deserved), in all other respects a fine piece of urban fantasy writing, which deals with themes of immigration and nativism through a fantasy lens. It's not preachy or simplistic, though; it explores its themes organically, as part of a tense, high-momentum plot with rich characterization and insight into humanity.
10. Sirena, Gideon Marcus. Sequel to Kitra, which made #22 in last year's list. It's YA space opera with plausible-enough science and a strong, well-paced adventure plot that tests the courageous, principled, and capable young protagonists.
9. The Case of the Dragon-Bone Engine, Galadriel Coffeen. If only all steampunk was as well-executed as this! It manages to make the mystery compelling and the characters and their setting feel real. It shows the social impact of technological change, and in general it's just competent in a way that sadly few steampunk books are.
8. Scales and Sensibility, Stephanie Burgis. Regency romance with dragons seems to be a trend right now, and this is a good entry in the subgenre. An intelligent, capable heroine pulls off a difficult impersonation in a twisty and sometimes hilarious plot, and the Regency aspect feels more authentic than is often the case.
7. Battle Ground, Jim Butcher. Currently the latest in the Dresden Files series, which is losing none of its considerable steam. This one is a roller-coaster ride, if a roller-coaster ride began by being shot out of a cannon and then involved getting repeatedly shot at by a cannon, and just when you think it's over they blow up the car.
6. Comeuppance Served Cold, Marion Deeds. An excellently-executed Prohibition-era urban fantasy heist caper.

The four five-star books this year were all excellently written, with compelling plots, deeper-than-usual worldbuilding and admirable protagonists. They form the platinum tier, and they are:
5. Mary Quirk and the Secret of Umbrum Hall, Anna St. Vincent. A sensible, capable teenage protagonist and powerful sensawunda set this apart from the many all-too-similar magic school stories that have flooded the market since Harry Potter.
4. The Unlikely Escape of Uriah Heep, H.G. Parry. A New Zealand setting (Wellington) works well for this tale of a man who can pull characters out of books into reality. Realistic family dynamics, wonderfully literate, with a compelling mystery-adventure plot.
3. Ancestral Night, Elizabeth Bear. A bravura performance, which makes space opera feel fresh and a confrontation between representatives of two different political philosophies feel like a plot instead of a sock-puppet show.
2. The Mask of Mirrors, M.A. Carrick. Richly layered, with a noblebright ensemble cast who had me cheering for them all to achieve their seemingly incompatible goals through a gripping mystery plot.
1. Piranesi, Susanna Clarke. A beautifully crafted book that unfolds gradually into something completely unexpected, with characters that feel like real people, and a fantastic setting that nevertheless feels like a real place.

Author Gender Breakdown

I started compiling figures for author gender (based on what's on their Goodreads profiles) for my top list in 2018. Without operating a quota system of any kind, I've been slowly moving from about 50/50 male and female authors towards a skew to female authors; by my count, across the 90 books I read in 2021, the authors totalled 41 male, 49 female and 2 nonbinary. One of the books was by two authors writing under a shared pseudonym, and I have counted that as two people. I've also, obviously, counted the same author multiple times if I read multiple books by that author, though where I had an omnibus edition with several books in one, I've only counted that as one book and one author. The numbers in my top lists are also skewing increasingly female (more so than the total list), with only six men in the top list this year; the total over the past eight years is just coming close to parity, since I read more male authors in most previous years, including last year.


Protagonist gender is also skewed towards female, which is a conscious choice (I just find women more interesting protagonists). There are roughly 31 female protagonists and 19 male protagonists (depending how you define protagonist) in this year's top list. Some books have more than one protagonist, and a number of them have both a male and a female protagonist, since I'm reading more books with a strong romance subplot these days.

Summing Up

My liking for noblebright characters who are willing to pay the cost in order to do the right thing, and who battle to do so with courage, intelligence, determination and conviction, is no secret, and this year's books reflect that. I seem to have been in a romance mood, and particularly in a Regency romance mood, in 2021; not sure exactly why. I've been reading the occasional Regency romance for a few years now, but maybe there are just more fantasy Regency romances being written lately.
I was also pleased to find a few well-executed steampunk and urban fantasy books, two genres that feature a lot of disappointing work. This year, I didn't come across any good supers books, another genre that's often poorly executed and may be fading in popularity (or turning too dark for me to want to read what titles there are; I blame Sanderson, probably unfairly).
Whatever the genre, I will always love a book with a compelling, eventful plot; characters who struggle against the odds to do the right thing; and capable prose. I'll even forgive some other failings, if you give me that, but if you give me that plus a bit of human insight and some good worldbuilding, I will definitely be a fan. And this year, multiple authors managed to do so.

Saturday 1 January 2022

Review: The Court of Mortals

The Court of Mortals The Court of Mortals by A.J. Lancaster
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'm enjoying this series, set in a not!19th-century not!Britain that is appealingly sketched as a background to romance, fae politics, mortal politics, and even some mundane practical struggles surrounding the management of a somewhat run-down estate that's also a magical faeland. That last aspect gets less attention in this volume than in the earlier ones, though it's sometimes there in the background as a concern.

Wyn is appealing as the One Decent Fae, dealing with his dangerous family and trying to protect his love, Hetta, against their machinations while they look for a way to be together. Hetta is pleasingly determined, pragmatic and capable as she navigates magical and mundane issues with and without his help. Their families, and the noble and royal characters they encounter (usually as antagonists to some degree), are well drawn and distinct from one another.

It's a very solid series, and even though I'm not always the biggest fan of the fae as a fantasy element, I enjoy how they're handled here. Definitely one for my Best of the Year list for 2021.

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Review: The Mask of Mirrors

The Mask of Mirrors The Mask of Mirrors by M.A. Carrick
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Disclosure upfront: I'm on a writers' forum with one half of M.A. Carrick, which is a very open pseudonym for Alyc Helms and Marie Brennan (it's Marie that I know). Her sensible and knowledgeable comments there, and the excellent work I've seen from her in the past, were both factors in causing me to pick this up, along with a favourable review from Fantasy Faction.

I didn't regret my choice even for a moment. This is fine work, from authors who understand how real societies work, and are capable of layered worldbuilding that feels realistic even while being fantastical. It's baroque in more senses than one; it captures the feel of the baroque era, but it's also elaborate and intricate. The prose is sound, the copy editing excellent. And it pulls off the difficult feat of introducing us to multiple viewpoint characters who all win our sympathy, even when they have directly conflicting agendas.

It's a long, complicated book. An indie author would almost certainly have broken it into at least three books, and it would have been the poorer for it; it's one continuous narrative in several parts.

Of those, I found the first part the least engaging, though certainly engaging enough to persist with. There are a lot of characters introduced (I was glad the Kindle edition had X-Ray to remind me of who some of them were, on more than one occasion), and because the worldbuilding is dropped in contextually rather than in expository lumps - which, let me be clear, is a good thing - I spent some time not being sure exactly how some of it worked. There are three main and a couple of subsidiary complex cultures involved in the scenario, with several different elaborate magic systems. There is a glossary and a list of characters at the end, and it's worth your while to look at them if you're getting confused (there are no spoilers). Even in this early part, though, there are several motivated characters in dynamic situations, and I was in no danger of bailing out at any time.

As the book continued, I became thoroughly gripped by the mystery that all of the characters, in different ways and for different reasons, were pursuing, and also the other mystery of the identity of the Rook - a combination of folk hero and superhero. As the characters came to care about each other, as they revealed elements of selflessness and goodheartedness (incomplete in at least one case, but still there), I found their struggles more and more compelling. And as their various plots and agendas intersected, and some of them even confided in each other for the greater good, they became a powerful ensemble cast capable - barely - of resolving the situation, at great personal cost and with courage, intelligence and determination.

This is exactly the kind of book that shoots into the upper tiers of my annual Best Books list, and if I hadn't read the amazing Piranesi this year it would be right at the top, no question. I'm very much looking forward to reading the sequel.

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Review: Elven Doom

Elven Doom Elven Doom by Lindsay Buroker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Lindsay Buroker is to formulaic, prolific indie authors as Subway is to fast food. You still know exactly what you're going to get, but it's quite different from any of the others, and it will be healthy, enjoyable, and well executed.

That does mean that it's difficult to find new things to say in a review.

Lindsay is the mistress of the slow-burn romance, but also excels at the fight against overwhelming odds, the clever device, the exploding technology, the banter between allies, and the personal stakes. All these aspects are on full display here, and handled with her normal capable hand.

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