Friday 25 March 2022

Review: The Grief of Stones

The Grief of Stones The Grief of Stones by Katherine Addison
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'd previously read The Goblin Emperor and enjoyed it, so I took the opportunity to pick up a pre-release copy of this book for review via Netgalley. I haven't read the second book yet, and though some events in it are mentioned, I didn't feel lost as a result. (I did sometimes feel lost, which I'll talk about more in a minute, but it was not because I hadn't read the previous book.)

In The Goblin Emperor, because the focus is on the title character, the mystery-solving that goes on by the Witness for the Dead who is the main character of this and the previous book happens largely offstage. That was a slight disappointment to me, and probably other readers, though I understand why the focus was where it was, and that therefore the mystery got sidelined. In this, and I believe the previous book, the mystery solving becomes the focus.

A Witness for the Dead, in the setting, is a type of priest who is able to communicate with the recently deceased to some degree, which makes investigating murders a lot less complicated sometimes (not always). Not that it's always murders; there are multiple minor consultations throughout this book with citizens who want to know anything from their deceased business partner's bestselling scone recipe to where their late wife hid their savings. These seem to function mainly to provide a feel for the world (it's a dystopian place to be if you're poor) and to emphasize that the Witness for the Dead's work includes a lot of routine. He's a minor civic functionary, in most ways. But there are several murders, some of which are solved almost immediately, others by careful detective work over multiple chapters.

The mystery/detective side of things, for me, was fine. It worked well. What didn't work so well for me was the untranslated vocabulary and the elaborate names.

In my review of the original book, The Goblin Emperor, I noted that my difficulty in following the names and words for everything had some justification, in that it mimicked how the main character felt, thrust into the midst of court intrigue and suddenly surrounded by a great many people who he had to keep straight. Here, there's no such justification. The author is a good writer, and I'm going to assume that she knows the effect of including so much untranslated fantasy vocabulary - it makes the world feel alien. Again, in The Goblin Emperor that was a feature, but here it feels to me like a fault, particularly since less would have been more. A light salting of special terms that I could guess from context would have been enough, but I got a lot more than that, and it pushed me back a step from immersion in the story. It went from feeling alien to feeling alienating. Because I had a pre-publication version, I may have been missing a glossary that will be provided in the final book, but even with a glossary I would have had to look things up often enough that I couldn't have remained immersed. As it was, I just had to put up with a lot of instances where a word was used that conveyed little or nothing to me.

Another justification of a lot of untranslated words could be that it emphasizes that these things are not direct analogues of things in our world; there's a significant difference. That's a good defence in theory, but in practice, there are untranslated terms where, as far as I could tell, an English word like "temple" wouldn't have been at all misleading. Also, some vocabulary is translated, like "canon" or "prelate" (the latter of which, in English, means specifically a high-ranking cleric, but which is used in this book to mean a low-ranking one).

I'm left feeling that the author has made some missteps with the vocabulary that diminished my enjoyment of the book and didn't compensate by producing any benefit that was visible to me, or couldn't have been produced with a much lighter hand.

On top of that, the names were hard for me to remember. I finished the book last night, and I would have to look up the main character's name if I wanted to include it in my review today. Often, I would come to a character's name and have to use my Kindle's search function to find previous instances of it and remind myself who it was.

Katherine Addison writes highly capable prose, and this is a book with a brain and a heart. It gets into my Best of the Year list, but in the lowest tier, because the excessive and unnecessary use of untranslated vocabulary on top of hard-to-remember names appreciably diminished my enjoyment.

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Tuesday 22 March 2022

Review: A Tale of Two Cities

A Tale of Two Cities A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I started reading this because my wife was reading it for a book club, and I thought it would be fun to discuss it with her, even though it's very much not my usual genre. In fact, it's dystopian, which I dislike intensely, and what's worse, it's a dystopia that actually existed (or rather, two dystopias, the Ancien Regime and the subsequent Terror). Mainly for that reason, I found it tough going for a while, even though the author's skill is such that he can give us a chapter in which no characters speak and almost nothing happens, pure exposition in his strong narrative voice, and have it be compelling. Reading it, I gained a new appreciation for the omniscient narrator as a writing technique.

Dickens' deep anger at the injustices of both the Ancien Regime and the Terror comes through with crystal clarity, and he carried me along to feel the emotions with him. And when we hit the denouement, about three-quarters of the way in, the plot finally cohered and I was gripped by the travails of the characters. Dickens also delivers an early example of what I call the Glorious Ending, where someone is so filled with love that they completely turn around a situation that's arisen out of hatred.

There's a certain amount of reliance on coincidence involved in the plot, including some fortunate events that are never explained, but it's deservedly a classic nonetheless.

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Review: Aspects

Aspects Aspects by John M. Ford
My rating: 0 of 5 stars

A lot of authors are more intelligent and erudite than me. Elizabeth Bear, for example. Jo Walton, sometimes too much so for my enjoyment of her books. Neil Gaiman, who provides the introduction to this book, and was the author's friend. And, clearly, John M. Ford.

An author being more intelligent than me is not a problem if they write in such a way that I can follow what's going on. Unfortunately, in this book, Ford does not. The conversations are full of subtext that the characters clearly understand, but which went completely over my head, and I'm not sure if that's my fault or the author's.

The big problem, though, was the lack of a plot. I know the book was unfinished, and maybe at the point where I stopped reading (nearly halfway) we're still in Act 1, but... events occur, conversations occur, people and their clothing and surroundings are described in detail, but there's little sign of anyone driving towards any goal. The enormous chapters just wander on and on. Some of the characters do want things, but rather than them pursuing those in any meaningful way, we're stuck at a country house where they're all spending their holidays playing games and having meals and conversations that do a lot of worldbuilding and character exposition but never cohere into any kind of story.

My frustrations with the book caused me, at one point, to compare it to Gene Wolfe, which coming from me is not in any way a compliment; I can't stand Wolfe's inscrutable and often morally repugnant characters. To be fair, it's not nearly so far in those directions as the typical Wolfe novel, though I didn't follow many of the conversations, and a couple of the characters have done some vile things, which don't seem to count against them significantly in the author's mind.

John M. Ford is clearly a great author. I recall reading a short story of his ("Green is the Color") in an anthology and being inspired by its imagery to write a story of my own. He's a capable poet, and he describes things beautifully and delivers lovely epigrams. But in this book, anyway, he doesn't tell a story, and half the time I don't know what he is telling me, and that's a dealbreaker.

I received a pre-publication copy from Netgalley for review.

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Tuesday 15 March 2022

Review: The Middling Affliction

The Middling Affliction The Middling Affliction by Alex Shvartsman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Disclaimers upfront: I got this via Netgalley (at no charge) for review, and I know the author slightly online. We're on the same writers' forum, and he's written me several very encouraging rejection notes for stories I've submitted to his Unidentified Funny Objects anthologies. I get a strong impression that he's a decent guy. I don't think any of this has influenced my review.

This is the promising first installment in an urban fantasy series, reminiscent of the Dresden Files. The protagonist isn't a private investigator who's also a wizard, though; he's a member of a vigilante group of wizards who secretly also isn't a wizard. He manages, by projecting a lot of confidence and using a lot of magic items (which he is able to use, but not recharge), to get away with it. That's not entirely plausible, when you step right back and think about it (what with the high price of magic items he repeatedly mentions and the fact that absolutely everyone else who does his job routinely uses spells and can apparently tell the difference), but the story's pace is such that I tended to just accept it and be carried along.

He's something called a "middling," neither mundane nor magically gifted, visually indistinguishable from a Gifted but without any personal ability to cast unaided magic - and also traditionally hated and feared by Gifted, for reasons that are no longer remembered by most people but are revealed in the course of the story. The inciting incident that gets him involved in events is an underground auction of another middling, who turns out to be a young woman who was kidnapped and is being sold probably for vivisection or sacrifice. The protagonist, a born protector, can't be having with that, and sets out to rescue her, which kicks off a whole series of investigations, chases, try-fail cycles, pitched battles, fraught conversations, betrayals and rescues. One of the rescues is pretty much literally a deus ex machina, but since it does turn out to be narratively justified (once behind-the-scenes maneuverings get taken into account) I'll allow it.

I referred to the story above as "promising," because it's solid without, for me, making it all the way to amazing. The author is better known for his short stories (and his humour; much to my relief, he didn't try too hard to make this story humourous, just let the banter happen where it needed to), and for an early novel this is sound in its craft and shows a lot of potential. Let's recall that the first Dresden Files books weren't nearly as good as the later ones.

Please don't think, either, that I'm damning it with faint praise. I enjoyed it, and expect to enjoy future entries in the series even more. And the door is left wide, wide open for more in the series by the ending, which sets up a sequel as strongly as a sequel can be set up, without detracting at all from the completeness of the first volume.

Definitely better than middling.

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Monday 14 March 2022

Review: Paladin's Grace

Paladin's Grace Paladin's Grace by T. Kingfisher
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I came to this one straight from Swordheart , which I'd enjoyed, but I did my usual check of the negative reviews to see who didn't like it and why. The main complaint seemed to be that it wasn't an adventure fantasy, but a romance, and since I quite like a romance from time to time (and had enjoyed the one in Swordheart) that was more a selling point for me than otherwise.

The couple in Paladin's Grace and the couple in Swordheart felt, for a while, like they were exactly the same couple under different names, but differences developed. "Paladin of a recently dead god" is different from "magically trapped in a sword for centuries", and "widow of a vague man who didn't really understand sex" is different from "ex-wife of a toxic, gaslighting narcissist," but the differences go beyond those. Paladin Stephen is angsty in a different way from the magical sword fellow, Sarkis, and expert perfumer Grace is competent in different ways from the pragmatic housekeeper Halla. There are enough similarities that, if you liked one book, the chances that you'll like the other are high, but enough differences that you don't feel like you've just read the same book twice.

Not the least of the differences is the B plot that provides both complications and momentum to the main romance plot in each book. Swordheart involves a great deal of travelling and encountering various people who want to steal from Halla, whereas Stephen and Grace spend all their time in the same city, trying to solve a couple of mysteries, in one of which Grace is the authorities' prime suspect.

I will mention a few things that irritated me slightly, but were a long way from being fatal. The use of biblical names in a setting where the religion is explicitly not Christianity or Judaism is a pet peeve of mine, but I'm becoming more ready to forgive it. The author is not particularly good with possessive plurals, occasionally hyphenates when she shouldn't, uses "lay" for "lie" a few times (arguably a dialect difference rather than an error, but generally considered an error), and misuses a couple of other words, but other than that the editing is generally good. Both books also commit POV switches within a scene (one each). This book has a little bit of a deus ex machina, too, to get the characters out of a hole that the author has dug so deep that they need the rope ladder thrown down to them.

Aside from that, this is a strong romance between competent, pragmatic older characters (in their 30s) who wear their pragmatism as a cloak over strong feelings of personal inadequacy, driven along at a good pace by a pair of mysteries. Along the way, we get deep into the characters' heads, and I liked what I found there.


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Sunday 6 March 2022

Review: Swordheart

Swordheart Swordheart by T. Kingfisher
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Fun and amusing. I believe this is what would be termed "cosy fantasy," in that the stakes are not the fate of kingdoms or the world, but the fate of an impoverished widow who unexpectedly inherits all the possessions of her late husband's great-uncle, for whom she'd been serving as a housekeeper for some time. Her late husband's other relatives have a problem with this, and she wins free of them, with some difficulty, thanks to the unexpected help of a magic sword that manifests an immortal warrior.

That's only the start of their problems, though; they have to make a number of perilous journeys between towns (often a fraught proposition before modern times), encountering bandits, dangerous creatures, fanatical priests, and the other typical hardships of the road. Along the way, widow and warrior grow closer, bonded by their mutual travails.

With beautifully-drawn minor characters - special mention to Brindle, the gnole, with his distinctive phraseology and imperturbable manner - and varied incidents, leavened by amusing and insightful reflections, and a strong middle-aged romance between two people who find each other both frustrating and admirable, this all comes together into a highly enjoyable book. Recommended.

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