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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Thursday 15 September 2022

Review: The Bands of Mourning

The Bands of Mourning The Bands of Mourning by Brandon Sanderson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I only realized when I looked at the Mistborn series as a whole that every book of it that I have read so far has easily earned five stars from me.

So, what do I love? Firstly, of course, it's fantasy superhero heists, and those are three things I enjoy that also go well together. But I don't enjoy them if they're not well executed, and these books consistently are.

They're written (and copy edited) to a high professional standard, but it's more than that. I sometimes complain that books are "made from box mix," that they just clump through the expected motions like a primary school dance class. In Mistborn, every time I think I'm about to get a well-worn trope, I get something that subverts, or averts, or plays with, or reverses that trope in a fresh and interesting way. Sanderson knows genre fiction; he spends a lot of time thinking about it, he lectures on writing it at BYU, he's part of a long-running podcast that breaks down how to write it, and the result is that he notices when he's heading for a trope and can catch himself and do something original instead. Or play into it, if it's exactly what he wants; but he rarely does.

Then there are the characters. They're delightfully out of the ordinary, and not only because they have magical powers; Wayne, especially, sees the world through his own unique lens, but just as the plot doesn't fall unthinkingly into tropes, so none of the main characters fall unconsciously into conventional behaviour. Wax is driven, troubled, but ultimately incorruptible, and half the trouble he causes is because he doesn't care what most people think of him; Marasi is exceptional not least in finally acknowledging that her highest role is not to be the hero, but one of the highly competent sidekicks; and Steris, with her obsessive planning coupled with an ability to improvise if plans fail, makes neurodivergence look good. The immortal kandra, MeLaan, rather than being aloof and enigmatic, is right there in the action and pragmatic to a fault. She and Wayne almost form one of those Shakespearean low comedy duos.

In fact, all these oddball characters generate hilarious banter, seemingly effortlessly, just by being thrown together in an unusual and challenging set of circumstances. They pull together, they sacrifice, they learn more about themselves and change (with each other's help), and they show grit and perseverance in the service of what they know to be right. That's everything I look for from an ensemble cast.

There's a lot of worldbuilding in a Sanderson novel. His magic systems are complicated; this one has thirty-two (or maybe forty-eight, or more) separate powers. But the exposition somehow doesn't choke the action. Even when I noticed at one point that exposition was happening, and had been happening for several paragraphs, and maybe was just a touch of self-indulgence by the author who'd worked hard on figuring out the political economy of this world and wanted to put it in the book, it still felt like it spoke to stakes, that it could turn into an engine of conflict in due course (and it did). How he manages to present such a complex world in a way that the reader can understand while still enjoying a fast-paced plot is a source of wonder to me.

I know the author works incredibly hard on these books, even though he also writes them fast (considering how large and complex they tend to be). And the hard work shows. It shows in the all-round excellence of every aspect of the writing, and in the overall enjoyment I get from them as a result. I have no hesitation placing this in the Platinum tier of my Year's Best list.

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Review: Middlemarch

Middlemarch Middlemarch by George Eliot
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Where to start when reviewing such a classic?

First of all, this is not my usual genre (speculative fiction), though I do venture out of that genre on occasion. I read it mainly because it had been recommended to me as the book you need to read to understand what can be done with the omniscient narrator, and just as an all-round brilliantly written book in general. Secondarily, I was going through a drought of good books, so I pulled this up from the TBR.

Middlemarch is long. It needs to be, because of all it has to cram in: the lives of multiple carefully studied characters, which cross and intersect and create the plot between them, plus a portrait of society as it was at the time it was set (the early 1830s), with observations also relevant to the time when it was written (the early 1870s), and to human life in general. It tackles marriage, the role of women, the eternal British preoccupation with class and station, the living out or otherwise of one's religion, and ethical behaviour versus what is "expected". Perhaps its most wonderful character is Dorothea Brooke (as she is at the beginning of the book), who is both naïve and also authentically devoted to living out her religious principles; the author indicates that in another time and place, she might have been another St Theresa, but that her social context prevented her from greatness and made her merely a person who did great good in ways that were not widely known or celebrated. Because, despite making an idealistic young woman's mistake and suffering for it, she remains a deeply good person and ends up creating what I call the Glorious Ending, in which a character acts kindly and generously where many people would have acted selfishly, and so averts what looks like being inevitable tragedy. But there are several other characters, too, who grow and change through their interaction with each other and with mentors, antagonists, and situations of temptation and opportunity.

The minor characters are beautifully characterized, often through their speech; for example, Dorothea's uncle Mr Brooke, who is determinedly noncommittal about everything and avoids taking any very definite course of action or opinion, or Mrs Cadwallader, the wife of a local clergyman, who is one of those women who speaks her mind on all occasions without caring in the least about anyone else's opinion or feelings. Half a page of their dialogue is enough to show us exactly who they are.

And that brings me to my one issue with the book. As I said, this is not my usual genre, and I usually read fiction written in the last 50 years or so, mostly the last 20, rather than 150 years ago. Accordingly, I'm used to the current style of handling point of view mostly as either tight third person or, less often, first person. In either case, the viewpoint is largely restricted to that of the character; we see what they see, hear what they think, observe what they do and say, and from this decide whether they're reliable, correct, laudable, mistaken, self-deluded, culpable or excusable.

I don't for a moment doubt that the author would have been more than capable of writing in that style, and doing so brilliantly, had she been writing today, when the techniques of doing so have been highly developed through use by many writers in the interim. But Middlemarch is written very much in the omniscient narration style, now out of fashion, and to me, that was its fault. Not only because it's a less familiar style to me, though probably also for that reason, but because it made it harder to see the characters past the narrator. Early on, I made a note comparing the experience of reading it to being at a play where the actors keep freezing while the dramatist steps up to the footlights and tells us not only all of the things they think and feel, but all of the things they don't know and aren't self-aware about, and how all of that relates to their social context. She does it very brilliantly and in memorable, quotable prose, but I did find myself wishing that she'd get out of the way a bit more and give me a closer, less filtered contact with the characters.

Part of my reason for reading the book, as I mentioned, was that I wanted to learn more about the omniscient narrative style by seeing it done with great skill. I achieved that goal, but it didn't make me want to use the style; it showed me the downsides as well as the upsides.

I did enjoy the book considerably, though, and it is excellently written. It enters my Best of the Year list at the Silver tier, for solid books that, for one reason or another, don't quite qualify for gold. Bear in mind that that's a merger of how much I enjoyed the book with how well I judge it to be written; if I was only using the latter criterion, it would be a five-star, platinum-tier book for sure.

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Monday 12 September 2022

Review: The Hollow Boys

The Hollow Boys The Hollow Boys by Douglas Smith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Supers novels are often badly written, but this one is not. It's well edited, even in the pre-release version I got for review via Netgalley, with engaging characters, good pacing and a twisty plot.

Sure, the villains are a touch cartoonish, and there are a few well-worn tropes - the loss of the mentor, the villain's mistreated minion having a heel-face turn, and the like. One of the protagonists has what I call a "superhero job," supposedly important but in practice able to be set aside (or even made use of, in an unrealistically compressed timeframe) in order to tend to the plot. But the strengths well outweighed these minor weaknesses for me.

There are two protagonists, both of whom get to be effective in resolving the plot. Case, a street kid with a mysterious but helpful Voice in her head, who fiercely protects her little brother with the help of his ability to fade from people's notice, is just as capable as Will, the billionaire teenage heir who has added to his missing parents' fortune with the popular graphic novel he writes. Said graphic novel features a fictionalized version of his own superhero persona, the Dream Rider; he's able to astral project into the realm of Dream, and find out, for example, where kidnapped children are in order to alert the police.

When a body-stealing sorcerer, a Manx witch, and an old Tibetan monk turn up in their lives and unwittingly bring them together, Case and Will team up, hook up, and act with courage, intelligence and resourcefulness, risking everything for the sake of others. This is just what I look for in protagonists, and along with the capable writing makes this a very successful book as far as I'm concerned. It easily makes the Gold tier of my Best of the Year list.

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