Monday 30 May 2022

Review: False Security

False Security False Security by Lindsay Buroker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Prime Buroker, meaning that just about everyone is snarky (in more or less the same way), the plot moves along briskly, the romance moves very slowly, a lot of things blow up, and the main character is a badass on the outside but secretly full of self-doubt.

I spotted five very small copy editing issues, mostly typos.

It just falls into that narrow gap between "I enjoy it" and "it's good enough to go on my Best of the Year list".

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Monday 23 May 2022

Review: Salvage

Salvage Salvage by R.J. Theodore
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I found this one confusing and not always engaging. I read the previous book in the series about five years ago, and remembered very little of it; while there were eventually enough reminders of the key elements of backstory, I was at sea for a while. Looking back on my review of the previous volume (which I put on my Best of the Year list for 2017), I was also confused while reading that one, so it may be a fault of this author.

The worldbuilding, in particular, made no sense to me then and makes even less now. The cosmological setup is that five ancient alchemists (alchemists = wizards differently named; there doesn't seem to be any good reason for terming what they do alchemy specifically) destroyed the planet of Peridot in order to get enough power to make them gods, and then rearranged the pieces and each created a sentient race to follow them, plus various other species as they saw fit. The world now consists of a ball of energy called Nexus which somehow (apparently not by gravity as we know it) holds a number of floating islands in place around it, mostly in the same plane. They don't appear to rotate around it. There is gravity; things other than the islands (and airships which, improbably, pump steam into rigid wooden balloons in order to create lift) fall, not towards Nexus but in a direction perpendicular to Nexus, until they reach the flotsam layer at the "bottom of the gravity well," but nothing appears to be causing this gravity. It's just magic (sorry, "alchemy"). Also, weirdly, the air is thinner at the bottom of the gravity well. So physics as we know it is completely out to lunch. There's a passing mention of sunrise or sunshine at one point, which may be an error, as the lighting seems mostly to consist of bioluminescent pumpkins producing a day/night cycle. This leaves two alternative questions: If there's a sun, how is it producing day and night when the planet is no longer blocking it half the time? And if there isn't a sun, where did it go, since presumably there was one prior to the cataclysm? (And if there isn't a sun, where is the energy coming from to light the glow pumpkins and produce food and do all the other things that sunshine is needed for? Though I suspect the answer to that one is "alchemy".)

This wasn't the only thing that made me think that the author was doing something because it would be cool or serve the plot, at the expense of suspension of disbelief. Nor was it the only thing that confused me or left me unclear on how things worked. The five races, and the characters, are all described in an extensive glossary/gazetteer at the end of the book, but I didn't get enough in the text itself to get much idea of how most of the characters appeared, or to get straight for a long time what their membership in the different races meant for their appearance (or even which race they belonged to, sometimes).

The narrative is close third person, mostly but not exclusively following the viewpoint of the ship captain who was the main character of the first book also. She's an interesting character, and we get some interiority from her and, to a lesser extent, from the other viewpoint characters, but the characters around her are much more two-dimensional, including her beloved and loyal crew. I never really got much sense of Tisker or Dug's personalities, in particular. They exist almost entirely in relation to Talis, the protagonist.

She is a protagonist, not merely a main character; she's constantly striving to prevent worse things happening to the world, and reverse some of the bad things that have happened already. The thing is, she's not all that effective at it, and partway through we get a major tragedy of the type that I personally dislike in my fiction.

Early on we're promised a heist, but this is one of the many plot directions that Talis ends up abandoning because of external factors. I'm all for a good try-fail cycle, but the thing about try-fail cycles is that they should generally complicate the protagonist's attempts to achieve their goals, not derail them entirely. Also, I wanted to see the heist, and I wanted to see Talis succeed in preventing disaster; I got neither.

I received a copy via Netgalley for review, which is labelled as the second edition and apparently will come out in July 2022 (the book has been published for a couple of years). Accordingly, I won't go into too much detail on the state of the copy editing except to say that it needs some more, including a spellcheck, a lot of work on misused vocabulary, and the insertion of some missed-out words in sentences. Not sure why almost all books with airships in them display poor writing mechanics and a lot of vocabulary problems, but that does seem to be the case. My review of the first book gave good marks for the copy editing, so I'm not sure what's going on there; maybe a different and less capable editor for the second one. If so, I hope they can get the original one, or someone else as good, to go over this one between now and July.

All in all, I was disappointed and confused and at times found it a slog. There's good potential here, but it needs a lot of polishing, and I don't think I'll bother with the third book when it comes out.

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Friday 20 May 2022

Review: The Talking Beasts A Book of Fable Wisdom

The Talking Beasts A Book of Fable Wisdom The Talking Beasts A Book of Fable Wisdom by Kate Douglas Wiggin
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

A mixed bag, mostly not my bag.

It opens with the familiar Aesop's Fables, which most of us, I think, heard as children and which have given us a number of familiar expressions such as "sour grapes" and "dog in the manger". One of the fables includes a reference to spectacles, something that definitely didn't exist in the sixth century BC; apparently, fables continue to be added to the Aesop corpus even into modern times. A number of them are quite subversive, when you look at them closely, the kind of things you would expect a slave to come up with about villainous use of power by the powerful and its clever undermining by the supposedly powerless.

After that, things go downhill. The fables of Bidpai, which follow, are mostly rather contrived stories to make a predetermined moral, rather than being observations of semi-realistic and relatable behaviour and situations that generate their own insight, like Aesop's; and one of them literally has the moral "Don't associate with people of other races." Bidpai gets to this moral through a highly unlikely setup involving a frog and a mouse who tie a thread between them so that they can easily let each other know when they want to chat, and that results in both of them being caught when a predator grabs one of them. A number of them are the standard injunctions to keep to your place in life, though there are also a couple about oppressors getting their comeuppance in unlikely ways, the kind of thing that would keep an oppressed population compliant in the hope that external forces would deal with the oppressors, rather than encouraging them to take matters into their own hands.

Many of the subsequent fables appear to not have much point, or make a generic point quite weakly; some of them are trickster stories about a creature (like the mouse-deer that is the protagonist in many of the Malayan fables) who fools other creatures, without really making a point at all; some are overly wordy and repetitious. There's a lot of use of archaic language, for some reason; why would you publish a book for children in 1922 that has lines like "if thou wilt take it I will show it to thee that thou mayest do so"? It detracts rather than adds.

The Russian fables are most like Aesop's, in that they present a clear, applicable lesson that arises naturally out of the story, without pounding it into the ground.

I ran out of momentum when I hit the French fables of La Fontaine, translated into bad verse, and never made it all the way to the end.

Overall, the Aesop part is the best part (at least, as far as I read), and there are plenty of other places you can get that material. I'd hoped that a collection of fables drawn from all over the world would be like Aesop, but varied with some fresh new perspectives; it's mostly not like that, and there are some bad editorial decisions (like the archaic language). Not recommended.

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Thursday 12 May 2022

Review: Locklands

Locklands Locklands by Robert Jackson Bennett
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A powerful conclusion to an excellent trilogy.

This is high-concept fantasy, different from anything you'll see elsewhere. The characters are living in a universe which allows certain skilled people to "scrive" it, to magically convince parts of the universe that they are somewhere different, or the same as another thing (allowing something like the Law of Contagion to operate, where something done to one of the pair happens also to the other), or denser, or affected by gravity in a different way, or changed in various other ways. The author takes this promising premise and thoroughly delivers on it, coming up with remarkably clever uses for his unique magic system.

On the one hand, there's a powerful thread of action, in which the ensemble cast struggle desperately against a vastly powerful being which arose in the previous books and is dominating thousands of people, turning them into, effectively, its drones, and sacrificing their lives to power "edits" to reality. Its mad goal is to find an entrance to a place where it can access the laws of the universe directly and... they're not initially sure what it will do then, but it won't be good. There are frantic and suspenseful battles using unique magical technology and clever strategy, causing destruction on a vast scale, and there are cunning infiltrations and heists using other imaginative applications of the magical tech.

Meanwhile, the characters are torn between their duty to protect the world and their desire to live normal lives with the people they love. And everything is complicated and made more awesome by a technique they've discovered which enables people to be joined mentally in teams or larger groups, some of which have taken on collective personalities and important roles in the new society they're improvising. They don't have a single leader, which makes it very difficult - and that's how they know they're doing it right.

Between the high concept and the skilled execution, I had no hesitation in calling this a five-star book. It's not perfect - the author could use the verb "hurtle" about 60% less often, for example, though he does at least use it correctly and not confuse it with "hurl". And even though I read the previous book only about six months ago, I could have done with a bit more subtle reminder of some of the characters and their relationships; Claudia, in particular, was a bit of a cypher to me, since I'd forgotten her backstory and it didn't get much replay. It's still very, very good.

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