Monday 18 July 2022

Review: What Song the Sirens Sang

What Song the Sirens Sang What Song the Sirens Sang by Simon R. Green
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This series, now that I've read three of them, reveals that each book is written to the same formula.

There's a heist, which is fine; that's what I came for. But it's a bit linear.

The thief who has stolen the identity of master thief Gideon Sable is less clever and certainly less charming than he thinks he is.

(view spoiler)

People who seem like they're antagonists turn out not to be, and this is a bit of a let-down.

Rich, fashionable people are just the absolute worst and deserve a horrible death.

A number of people (who deserve it) receive a horrible, gory death that's thoroughly described, which is a trademark of the author's books in general.

Overall, it's not a formula that I love tremendously, and although it's well executed, it didn't appeal to me enough to get onto my Best of the Year (as the first book did) or even to get four stars without a Best of the Year spot (as the second book did). Nor will I be following the series any further. I was looking for more than it delivered.

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Tuesday 12 July 2022

Review: A Coup of Tea

A Coup of Tea A Coup of Tea by Casey Blair
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Enjoyable, despite a few (sometimes surprising) flaws.

It's presented as "cosy fantasy," implying that the stakes, while important to the main character, may not be "important" in any larger sense. And at first, that's what we get: a princess renounces her position and family in order to figure out who she is when she isn't letting everyone else define her, flees to the other end of the country, and (by happy coincidence, which fortunately was the only use of this plot device) ends up with a job at a tea shop.

It turns out that her extensive education in etiquette includes the Tea Ceremony, so she gets the idea of attempting to become a tea master. There are tea shop scenes, a sweet low-key romance, a cute cat, other women that she starts to befriend, and interactions with her boss where she uses her emotional intelligence to partially compensate for her extremely sheltered upbringing. (Among the several well-judged telling moments is one where she reflects that she knows the history and all the political wranglings involved in the design of each coin of the realm, but has never actually had occasion to use one.)

So far, it feels like one of those Japanese manga about a young woman in a service vocation largely just dealing with day-to-day life (especially since her name sounds Japanese, plus tea ceremony). As the story goes on, though, the stakes get higher: there's oppression going on against a refugee group (the term "structural inequality" gets thrown around a lot) and maybe the ex-princess can do something about it, if she risks everything?

The setting, unfortunately, is of the scenery-flats variety. I felt it was only just barely worked out enough to enable the plot. For example, there's never any definition of what magic can and can't do or how it works, enabling it to do whatever it needs to, and to provide analogues of contemporary technology like fridges, and also a train which seems to only exist so that she can get across the country in a day. There are occasional intrusions of right-now-this-minute US liberal concepts, like the aforesaid "structural inequality", without any attempt to make them feel organic to the setting. It feels like it's mashed up out of bits of traditional Japanese and contemporary American culture, with some on-the-fly fantasy elements papered hastily over the seams.

In the pre-publication copy I got from Netgalley for review, the editing is mostly good, apart from occasional missing words in sentences and a few surprisingly basic homonym errors. Hopefully they will be fixed before publication.

Setting aside these minor flaws, the character work is good, the plot is well constructed, there's an abundance of heart, and the occasional brief philosophical reflections actually have some depth to them. That last point would usually get a book up to five stars for me, but the rather shonky worldbuilding drags it down to the silver tier of my Best of the Year. That's still a recommendation.

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Review: Wondering Sight

Wondering Sight Wondering Sight by Melissa McShane
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the first Melissa McShane book I've read that doesn't (quite) make it to my Best of the Year list, and it's entirely Sophia's fault.

Sophia, the heroine, has a habit of concealing things from and also outright lying to her friends; getting pridefully upset and refusing help; taunting the dangerous psychotic who is her antagonist; and making bad decisions in general. She is, in fact, bordering on being too stupid to live.

This is particularly a problem because she participates in a romance subplot, and I have this quirk where I need to find both parties to a romance subplot admirable in order for it to work for me. The hero is fine - although, because we don't get his POV, he remains a bit undeveloped; he's your basic reliable, competent, hard-to-read hero. I find those work better for me when I get a bit of their underlying insecurity by being in their viewpoint. But it felt to me like his attraction to Sophia was driven by the plot rather than being organic, because she treated him badly and made, as I say, a long series of poor decisions.

She is highly competent at what she does, a combination of a kind of clairvoyant dreaming and psychometry, though she's foiled for a long time by a rival dreamer who is confusing her dreams and preventing her from getting the evidence she needs in the mystery that's the heart of the plot. She's accused a nobleman of embezzling from the War Office, but hasn't been able to prove it, and was quietly dismissed from her position with the War Office supporting the fight against Napoleon in the Peninsula as a consequence. She now wants revenge against him, and is driven to self-destructive lengths in order to get it. The try-fail cycles of the plot were generally good, though the way in which she eventually got around the method the villain was using to block her (with a minion who was capable of holding several incompatible intentions in his mind at once, and picking one at the last minute when it was too late for her dreams to predict the outcome) made no sense whatsoever. (view spoiler)

The series imagines a Regency Britain in which people have various psychic powers, and in which women who have these powers, even aristocratic women, are permitted (almost required) to use them to work in the service of the crown. This creates a sometimes jarring difference from our world's history in terms of the roles and behaviour allowed to women of the upper classes. The powers themselves are not clearly described in the text, and even though I'd read at least one of the books in the series before and had a head start, it took me a while to get up to speed with what the names of the powers meant and how they worked, based on what we were shown. "Show, don't tell" is good writing advice, but it's possible to confuse your reader by dropping in technical terms that are familiar to people in the setting but not to the reader and only gradually demonstrating what they mean. I wouldn't have minded a couple of paragraphs of exposition early on.

All in all, not a great Melissa McShane, though there's still some space between "not great by Melissa McShane's standards" and "bad". I was entertained, but I wanted it to be slightly better executed and for the heroine to be more mature.

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