Wednesday 26 October 2022

Review: The Frith Chronicles: ARC I

The Frith Chronicles: ARC I The Frith Chronicles: ARC I by Shami Stovall
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This hits my Deserves Better Editing Goodreads shelf, because it's a well-told story with an appealing protagonist, but the copy editing is scruffy (especially the first book).

The protagonist, Volke, was my favourite feature, and made up for some other weaknesses. He's a genuinely good and honest person, who has absorbed the life lessons of his excellent adoptive father and is seen by everyone around him as the reliable one, though he is still young and makes a young man's mistakes from time to time. He's determined to prove that his parents, who were both criminals, don't define him, and he does that very well through a series of exciting and varied challenges, including fighting pirates, contending in arena battles, and attempting to track down and foil the source of a magical plague.

There's quite a complicated love polyhedron among the young cast. Zaxis, the annoying rich boy jock (who gradually learns to be a partially decent person and a good fighter who thinks as well as acts), likes Illia, Volke's adoptive sister; so, I suspect, does her friend Hexa, though as at the end of the book Hexa hasn't said anything yet, and maybe that will never become anything (a good many potential threads never develop). Illia likes Volke, but he sees her as a sister. Atty, the privileged girl from their island who is always expected to be perfect, likes Volke too, and vice versa, but they're both shy about it and the relationship is very slow to develop. And Zaxis, the last of the group of six apprentices, doesn't seem to want any romantic relationship, least of all the marriage his awful, distant, demanding parents have arranged for him (though that, too, is a thread that, as of the end of Book 3, has dropped out of sight).

The world is an interesting and, as far as I'm aware, original one, in which humans become arcanists (able to practice magic) by bonding to any of a large number of mystical creatures, who are then able to mature, making the relationship mutually beneficial. Supposedly, the arcanist and their eldrin (bonded creature) become more like each other as they work together, though that's something we're told rather than shown. Illia's eldrin, an amusingly self-aggrandizing little ferretlike being, is nothing like her, and she doesn't become boastful or bombastic either. The other eldrin mostly don't have much personality, including Volke's, which, given that Volke is the main character, is a bit of a fault. The human characters (other than Volke) deepen very slowly for the most part, and the worldbuilding does the same; we do learn more about how the human/eldrin relationship works, and that some eldrin breed like natural creatures while others are magically created under specific circumstances, but the world still feels more like scenery flats than a fully realized setting. The creatures include mythical monsters from very specific cultural backgrounds in our world, which is occasionally jarring, as well as a few completely made-up ones.

I reviewed the first book on Netgalley before it was published, and took that opportunity to point out a number of copy editing issues (mostly missing past perfect tense, which is a particular weakness of the author). Some seem to have been corrected subsequently, perhaps because of that feedback - but perhaps not, since several of the same errors (like "hydra's" used for a non-possessive plural) are still there.

The second and third books are somewhat better, though there are still some issues with apostrophes in plural words, and a few basic homonym or near-homonym errors, including the classic "horde" for "hoard". A good many dangling modifiers, too.

All of which means that, although I do enjoy them and want to continue reading the series, I will be waiting for them to be on sale, since (for me) they are overpriced for books that lack polish in their copy editing and don't deepen the characters or setting very much over the course of three books. They are fun, though, and make it to the bronze tier of my Best of the Year list for 2022.

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Wednesday 19 October 2022

Review: Knife Children

Knife Children Knife Children by Lois McMaster Bujold
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've not been enjoying Bujold's recent work as much as her earlier stuff, and in part it's because she's backed off what used to be her signature writing approach: Look for the thing that would cause the most trouble for the character, that they least want to happen, and have that thing happen. However, she does do that in this book at least once (even though it derails this book's main character's plan to connect up with the main characters of the series, making that a tease that's never paid off).

This is definitely a softer Bujold, but the focus is on the relationships, on working through the consequences of a youthful misjudgement from a perspective of more maturity, and in those terms it works. Her characteristic running of the external dialog and events side by side with the main character's internal reflections on them mostly works well, though in the audio version I listened to, there are a couple of places where it wasn't immediately clear what was dialog spoken aloud and what was internal reflection.

All in all, good for a new Bujold, and though that isn't the high praise it would once have been, it does get it into the bronze tier of my Best of the Year.

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Monday 17 October 2022

Review: Observer

Observer Observer by Robert Lanza
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I picked this up largely because it was co-authored (or, I suspect, "entirely written, based on ideas by Robert Lanza") by Nancy Kress, who I knew to be a highly competent SFF writer. I have a couple of her books on the craft of writing, and they're excellent, so I expected a well-told story. Nor was I disappointed. (I'll note that there's at least one other award-winning writer whose writing advice I respect, but whose actual fiction I've never enjoyed or been impressed with, so the two skills don't inevitably go together.)

It needed someone with the skill of a Kress to make this a readable story, honestly. There is a lot of exposition, and a less competent author wouldn't have been able to make it interesting. Also, the premise doesn't make a great deal of sense if you think about it in any depth, so it needed an author who was able to keep up a constant patter of misdirection by telling an engaging story with well-drawn characters.

That premise starts with some features of the observer effect in quantum physics and boldly makes the observer central - so central that the theory is that observers create the universe, rather than vice versa. Building on this, a Nobel laureate in medicine (who is dying of cancer), his old friend the theoretical physicist whose theory I have just outlined, and a tech billionaire have come together to attempt to enable people who are implanted with brain stimulation equipment and linked up to powerful software to create new universes by "observing" them in a kind of virtual reality within their own minds. In these universes, they are able to create counterfactual situations: for example, the door of a room in the Caymans, where they are based for legal reasons, opens into the theoretical physicist's house in Britain in a universe where his wife did not die 15 years before, but is still alive. Not a simulation of her - actually her. Never addressed is where the version of him from that other universe is, why his wife isn't surprised to see him, how he gets from the Caymans to the house in Britain by walking through a door... There are a lot of holes in the basic idea, in other words.

Although Kress is known as a "hard" SF writer, meaning she makes a lot of use of actual science, she's not one of those whose characters are simply cameras exploring the clever setting. She tells a story, and her characters read like people. The main point of view belongs to Caro, the Nobel laureate's great-niece, a neurosurgeon who, after a failed attempt to hold a more senior male surgeon to account for drunkenly groping her at a party (which led to her being heavily trolled on social media by toxic men), is prepared to take a chance on what sounds like a weird and maybe even borderline unethical project implanting the brain stimulation devices. (view spoiler)

Through most of the book, Caro remains skeptical about the reality of the experiences people have through the devices she implants, and this provides a good point of tension and makes her character feel strong and distinct, given that she's surrounded by true believers.

There's a solid B plot involving Caro's sister, who's dealing with a disabled child and also a non-disabled child who is finding her younger sister's needs and the demands they place on her mother increasingly difficult to bear. There's also a romance subplot for Caro, which gives her a conflict between relationship and career, and several friendships of different kinds with other members of the project. It's all very solid storytelling, and it's where the book shines. It doesn't have the all-too-prevalent issue of contemporary or near-contemporary SF, where the characters are alienated people with no values who don't particularly want anything but just have to react to events. Caro comes through as a character with multiple dimensions, needs, desires, and the ability and determination to work towards what's important to her.

From an unpromising and dubious premise, then, Kress builds a highly readable novel with engaging characters, a feat for which she should be commended.

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Review: Advent 9

Advent 9 Advent 9 by T. Alan Horne
My rating: 0 of 5 stars

Despite the claims of its late editor Dave Farland, this book doesn't invent a new genre of "Superpunk". Supers novels have been a low-profile but prolific subgenre of SFF for years; this is only one of 52 books on my Goodreads "supers" shelf (at time of review), and certainly as far as I read - admittedly not quite halfway - it was similar enough to the others that it clearly belonged there. (And there are several large series that, for one reason or another, I haven't read.)

It's better written and better edited than most, though by itself that's faint praise; supers novels, like steampunk, seem to attract incompetent writers for some reason. Let me be clearer: It's well written, and apart from a couple of dangling modifiers, some mispunctuated dialog and a few other minor glitches, even the pre-publication version I got for review from Netgalley is clean from a copy editing perspective.

So why did I stop reading it? Simply because the blurb (at the time I picked it up) did not alert me to a key fact: as well as a supers story, this is also a horror story, featuring several psychotic mass murderers or serial killers and also battling terrifying monsters in a slimy subterranean labyrinth, and that is not something I personally enjoy reading.

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Tuesday 11 October 2022

Review: Fool's Game

Fool's Game Fool's Game by R.M. Dorn
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

While the storytelling and overall entertainment factor definitely put this book into my Best of the Year list for 2022, the scruffy presentation and decal-style characterization drop it down to the bronze tier.

First, the good. This is a fresh-seeming take on both portal fantasy and the battle royale, with a sympathetic main character. The pacing is good, and the story kept my interest throughout; I never considered going off and reading something else instead.

Unfortunately, though, the polish wasn't there to make it a truly excellent book rather than just an entertaining one. Individually, the issues weren't enormous: the author apparently not knowing that the convention is to use single quotes inside double quotes, for example, or forgetting to type the word "a" in a few sentences, or putting in extra coordinate commas between non-coordinate adjectives. But there were a lot of them (about twice as many as I see in a book on average, and it's a short book), and some of them were easily avoidable, such as the typos that spellcheck should have caught, or the inconsistencies in the notes on the game.

This is a game world, though it's not precisely game-lit. The game (we know, but the characters don't) is being played by the daughters of Destiny, four deaf goddesses who play with cards and dice, but the cards are people and creatures who battle for the goddesses' amusement in a pocket-dimension arena. (The frame narrative of the goddesses is prominent early on, drops out for the entire middle of the book, and comes back briefly at the end.) The human Cards have been recruited from mostly the 17th century, and this is where my suspension of disbelief broke down a little; none of them ring true to me as people from that time period, and even though they've spent time in the real world in the interim, I just didn't believe that would have made them into the people we see. Their historical origin is what I call a decal - something that we're told about them, but that remains purely superficial and feels inauthentic. In a similar vein, one of them is Scots, but his accent comes and goes unpredictably. I think he's mainly Scots when he's saying things that the author knows how to put in Scots dialect, but when he's saying things that a modern person would say, he speaks in unmarked modern English.

It was also mightily convenient that the randomly selected team that included the audience proxy - the woman from our own time recruited as the wild-card Fool - included only nice people with cats, dogs, and owls as familiars, rather than the nasty, ruthless people with snakes and bats who were the opposition. There was a character whose status was indefinite, who had otters, but mainly in order to provide a romantic triangle and some extra tension. Clearly, the heroine is bad at choosing men, perhaps in part because she either takes relationships too seriously or not seriously enough; this doesn't cause as much trouble for her as it probably should.

Overall, the emotional arc was sound and satisfying, and it hit the beats well. The finer details, though, were not finessed enough to get more than a bronze-tier rating.

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Monday 10 October 2022

Review: The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It's impossible to summarize this unique (and by unique I mean there's only one of them; I shouldn't have to say that, but I do) book, but here is an attempt to summarize it anyway:

A hapless but amiable 18th-century gentleman is so given to digressions that he hilariously fails to write his own autobiography, being too busy talking about his father, his beloved uncle, the local clergyman, the backstory of how he was born, his uncle's obsession with fortification, his father's crackpot theories about everything, and various minor matters arising from the foregoing, not to mention satirizing contemporary medicine, theology, and life in general, and at one point narrating his trip into France as an adult, so that (apart from the trip into France) he barely appears onstage in his own "Life" at all, and we never even get to find out for sure who his "dear Jenny" is or what their relationship consists of.

Because the author had an 18th-century gentleman's education, and I have a modern one, a lot of the detail goes over my head; I have small Latin and not a lot more Greek, and I haven't read most of the books he had read (and from which he apparently quotes freely without attribution at times, in contexts which recast the significance of the words in a satirical manner). But the enjoyment I do get is from the characters, including the character of Tristram, who, even if he's almost entirely absent as a subject of autobiography, is extremely present as a narrator. Uncle Toby is portrayed with tremendous affection, and his servant Trim with almost as much, as is Parson Yorick; all three are the kind of genuinely good-hearted and generous, if sometimes foolish, men we also encounter in the works of Henry Fielding. Tristram's parents are depicted brilliantly: his father, who never has the same opinion as anyone else on anything, but always comes up with his own nonsense and is incapable of being practical, and his mother, who infuriates her husband by always placidly agreeing with whatever he says, no matter how it contradicts what he said immediately before, and never even asking him to explain things she doesn't understand. It's a fun cast to spend time with.

Some of the nonsense, especially later on, did become a little tedious to me (it might have worked better for its original audience). But I'm glad I re-read it; I read it first in my father's set of Great Books of the Western World when I was a teenager (so, about 40 years ago), and didn't remember much about it except that I'd enjoyed it and it was exuberant and odd. I don't doubt that I understood even less of it then than I did this time round, but it jumps around so much that you don't get a coherent sense of very much anyway, so that is almost a feature rather than a fault.

And there, in further imitation of the book, I stop abruptly.

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