Tuesday 29 November 2022

Review: The Watchmaker's Daughter

The Watchmaker's Daughter The Watchmaker's Daughter by C.J. Archer
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Now that I see the number of books the author has written, and how quickly, I'm a little surprised that this is not even more made-from-box-mix.

What I mean is that it's not completely constructed out of tropes, though it is fairly tropey. There's a great deal of Convenient Eavesdrop and its cousin, Accidental Discovery of Evidence. The woman doesn't actually go off alone to confront the villain with no backup and without telling anyone where she's off to and have to be rescued by the man, but there's a scene that isn't ten million miles from that trope.

I listened to an audio version, so I can't comment on the punctuation, but the author does consistently make the common error of using "may" instead of "might" in past tense narration. She also uses "posse" to mean a criminal gang, which it might conceivably mean today, but in 1890 it definitely meant a group assembled by law enforcement.

The narrator does a good job with distinguishing the character voices, and not a terrible job with the American accents; you can mostly tell they're meant to be American, and I can usually suspend my disbelief, though they don't sound like actual Americans any more than her male voices sound like actual males. She chooses an accent for the main character that's one social class too high for a small tradesman's daughter, but I think that was the right choice, in the sense that she generally comes off as one class too high to be a small tradesman's daughter (she's several times described as "gently reared"). In fact, she seems to have been photocopied from a Regency miss who's no older than 18, even though the book is supposedly set in the 1890s and she's supposed to be 28. She even carries a reticule, an accessory that went out of fashion in about 1820.

There's nothing that really locates us specifically in the 1890s, in fact; that's a decal, something we're told rather than shown. There is some evidence of a map having been consulted, but it's mostly generic Victorian London, probably derived from reading other contemporary non-British authors' books set in Victorian London, and it feels like we are several generations of copying away from anyone who has gone so far as to read anything actually written in that place and time. The story takes place more in front of scenery flats, or at best a green screen, than in a fully realized world.

The spec-fic element is also kind of ridiculous (view spoiler), which isn't compensated for by the "you can't fire me, I quit" technique (saying in the text that it's ridiculous).

Overall, average for a period fantasy, which is to say disappointing (I find most period fantasy stories fall down on at least two of the period, the fantasy, and the story, and quite often all three, plus basic mechanics). It will have an audience, but that isn't me, and I won't be reading more in the series or from the author.

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Review: The Man Upstairs and Other Stories

The Man Upstairs and Other Stories The Man Upstairs and Other Stories by P.G. Wodehouse
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A lot of Wodehouse's early stories, including these, are written to a basic romance formula, which has several variations.

After the meet-cute, the proposal (sometimes even the marriage) usually follows rapidly, but then ensues one of several complications:

- An obstacle, almost always lack of money, often combined with family opposition, until (usually) good fortune more than the protagonists' actions resolves the situation.
- A deception, intended to win over the other person, but it backfires and makes (usually) her furious, until (usually) he finally gets a chance to explain, and all is forgiven.
- Behaving in a particular way, which causes problems in the relationship, but a change of behaviour may or may not be an improvement.

A lack of suitability of one or both of the people for human relationships in general is not always considered a barrier to happiness ('Something to Worry About' definitely has something to worry about in the young woman, who is trouble waiting to happen, and I don't envy her ill-advised lover in the least; the man in the title story also comes off as a bit of a stalker), though there is one story in which the protagonist wins wealth and then spurns his former inamorata, having seen through her grasping ways, and in another story one of the men who is a fortune-hunter gets revealed for the louse he is. In both cases, the men are French; maybe there was some British cultural reason why Wodehouse felt that French men could be left without a HEA and it would be fine.

Sometimes someone else with an interest one way or the other involves themselves in encouraging or discouraging the match, with or without success, and this becomes a source of plot tension and comedy. Often, in the interests of an expedient plot, the couple don't spend much time together before deciding to spend the rest of their lives together, but sometimes spending more time together draws people closer, and sometimes it pushes them apart.

Massive coincidence sometimes plays a role, though less so than in most of his novels of the same period. In one story, though, the hero happens to encounter a man twice by complete coincidence, confides his troubles to him, and by a third and much larger coincidence discovers that he's the one person who can help him with his problem (which his own incompetence has partly created).

The author's trying a few different things, in other words, ringing changes on a very basic romance plot. His later and better-known works often incorporate some kind of romantic complications, though many of them are what I think of as "anti-romances," where the challenge is to break off an unwanted attachment. No doubt what he learned from these early stories, where romance is the focus, helped him in the later ones where it was more of a background element.

Only one of the stories involves golf, so marking it as "Golf Stories, #0.5" is almost as misleading as calling The Man With Two Left Feet and Other Stories "Jeeves, #0.5" (though not quite, since Jeeves barely appears in that one).

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Monday 28 November 2022

Review: The Man with Two Left Feet and Other Stories

The Man with Two Left Feet and Other Stories The Man with Two Left Feet and Other Stories by P.G. Wodehouse
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Minor and early Wodehouse, before he settled into his classic style. It's marked as "Jeeves, #0.5" on Goodreads, but it's really more like 0.05 - Jeeves is mentioned once in one story, and has a single unimportant line and no part in the plot. An early version of Bertie (possibly with a different surname; it's not made explicit) and his formidable and disapproving Aunt Agatha (fully developed, or as much so as she would ever become) also feature in that story.

This was a period when Wodehouse was writing for both the British and US markets, and it's sometimes difficult to get a feel for which market a particular story was aimed at, or even which of the two countries it takes place in. While of course there is humour, and the voice is recognisably Plum, these are often more sentimental stories than comic stories, almost slices of life; a good many of them feature a basic romance, something that was often a feature in his early work, and they end in some cases more with a resolution of the mood than a resolution of the plot. (This is an entirely valid way to end a short story.)

Several of the stories use the device, later a staple of sitcoms, of people in close relationships deceiving one another and/or trying to manipulate one another for what seem to them at the time to be good reasons, often in order to impress a would-be or existing romantic partner. This inevitably causes problems, but (as in sitcoms) all they need to do is confess the truth in order to be forgiven.

One story is written from the viewpoint of a dog, and pulls off a nice example of the innocent narrator who doesn't understand what's going on but tells us enough that we can figure it out. A couple of them involve people whose despair with life reaches the point of attempting, or planning to attempt, suicide, which is a lot darker than classic Wodehouse ever gets.

Overall, this collection shows Wodehouse still looking for his note, and sometimes hitting it and sometimes not. His early work shows a lot more variety of protagonists and situations than the idle-rich-country-house shenanigans that he's best known for. I feel like he made some of them work, but ultimately it was the sparkling prose and the farcical comedy that brought him his greatest success.

One thing he does usually manage to do, though, is make the reader (at least, this reader) care about the concerns of the protagonist, whoever and whatever they are: an ugly policeman, a mongrel dog, a dull bank clerk who can't dance, a young woman who fails to make it on the stage, a lazy gourmand, a couple of struggling writers, a baseball fanatic who misses New York, a world-weary young woman employed by a tea-dance establishment, or an unsuccessful detective. To me, this is a big part of his true genius, and what I most want to imitate from him: the ability to tell anyone's story and make it feel important because it's important to them.

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Friday 25 November 2022

Review: Leave It to Psmith

Leave It to Psmith Leave It to Psmith by P.G. Wodehouse
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Wodehouse in prime form in 1923, using characters he'd originally written some years before; Mike and Psmith first appeared together in 1909, and the inhabitants of Blandings Castle in 1915.

It does suffer from his besetting sin at this period of making blatant use of coincidence to get his characters together. Not content with giving his projected romantic couple two separate and distinct connections (she is an old school friend of his old school friend's wife, and they are both, for different and unrelated reasons, going to end up at Blandings Castle), he has them meet twice in London by total coincidence; once because she's standing outside the Drones Club, to which he belongs, taking shelter from the rain, and, struck by her appearance, he steals an umbrella to give to her; the other, not long afterwards, because they happen to be at the same employment agency at the same time.

And then, not content with that, he gives them a third (indirect) encounter and a second way for him to get to Blandings. But that way involves a risky imposture, and quickly gets complicated, in what would come to be considered the classic Wodehouse style: continual farcical misunderstandings and cross-purposes, interrupted by near-disaster, sprinkled with bons mots, and resolved by daring cleverness, all in a country-house setting populated by memorably eccentric characters.

Sure, he refers to a pistol as both an automatic and a revolver (he doesn't seem to have known the difference, and makes that error in at least one other book). But setting aside this and the blatant coincidences, which do have a function in building and complicating the setup, this is excellent work, tightly plotted and consistently amusing. The romance arc is (for Wodehouse) sound, with the initially reluctant woman won over through a combination of likeability and cool-headed resourcefulness, and the character work is fully as good as his best. It makes the Gold tier of my Best of the Year for 2022.

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Monday 21 November 2022

Review: Psmith in the City

Psmith in the City Psmith in the City by P.G. Wodehouse
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Having set up the character of Psmith in Mike and Psmith , which is worth reading as an introduction and in its own right, Wodehouse takes him to new heights in this novel from 1910.

School friends Mike Jackson and Rupert Psmith (the P is silent), instead of going on to Cambridge as Mike had hoped, are stuck working in the City of London for the New Asiatic Bank. Mike's father's finances have taken a turn for the worse, and Psmith's father gets fads, and the outcome is that they end up as juniors in an enterprise that neither of them has any real interest in.

There's an autobiographical element here. After leaving Dulwich College (which gets an affectionate cameo), Wodehouse was expecting to follow his brother to Oxford, but his father's pension from his civil service career in Hong Kong was paid in rupees, and suddenly devalued against the pound, meaning that Wodehouse had to go into the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank instead. He was not an enthusiast, and the picture of the New Asiatic Bank as a dull place where people were trained up to be sent to the East (so there was never actually much work to do, since the London branch was not the headquarters) is, I'm sure, drawn from life.

Psmith, with his calculating charm, soon makes himself, and by extension Mike, popular with their immediate bosses, though his charm offensive on the senior manager (who they've both offended at Psmith's family home before being sent to work for him) notably fails, and has to be supplemented by other forms of manipulation, including blackmail. Psmith claims (unconvincingly) to be a socialist, which happens to be the political position of one of the managers, and there's a satiric sequence involving socialist speakers, an angry mob, and an awkward dinner.

Overall, it's a fun ride. Mike is a simple-hearted, well-intentioned blunderer, and Psmith has to keep expertly extracting him from the soup, in a prototype of the Bertie Wooster/Jeeves dynamic (though these are not simply the same characters; Bertie, in particular, is much more outgoing and less principled than Mike). For the cleverness and the fun, it makes it onto my Best of the Year list for 2022.

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Review: Mike and Psmith

Mike and Psmith Mike and Psmith by P.G. Wodehouse
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Early Wodehouse (1909), in the period where he was still writing school stories. Judging by this sample, though, even his school stories weren't the cliched, tropish school stories he occasionally references within this book, but novels that an adult can enjoy over a hundred years later.

It's hard to imagine much that's more trivial than the adventures of a teenage cricketer from a privileged background in early-20th-century Britain, who resents being taken away from a medium-sized public school and put in a small one because of his poor academic performance, and refuses to play cricket there out of pique. And yet Wodehouse demonstrates the skill he was later to use with the similarly trivial (and often self-imposed) struggles of Bertie Wooster to make those struggles important to the reader because they're important to the character, and the character is, for all his faults, likeable. (Not that Mike is the kind of prize idiot Bertie is; he's just a decent solid chap of simple character.)

Playing a kind of proto-Jeeves role is Psmith (the P is silent, and he has newly adopted it to distinguish himself from other Smiths), a young man sent to the same school as the protagonist Mike for similar reasons; he has performed poorly at his previous school, in his case Eton. They form an immediate friendship, and Psmith quickly demonstrates his ability to charm and manipulate adults and fellow teenagers alike. He's a kind of anti-Ukridge. Ukridge is a scruffy confidence trickster who's always complaining about his hard life and whose grand schemes for his own enrichment at the expense of others never work out; Psmith, on the other hand, is impeccably dressed, urbane, unfazed, always spinning some line or other, and his schemes, which tend to be for the benefit of his friends as much as himself or more, succeed beautifully in a way that's enjoyable to watch.

The minor characters, as always with Wodehouse, are a delight, and this lacks the besetting flaw of a lot of other early Wodehouse books: the plot doesn't rely excessively on coincidence to make it progress. This is probably because it's set in the closed environment of a boarding school, which was, apparently, the reason J.K. Rowling chose a boarding school as her setting: you can make sure the characters keep interacting with each other without resorting to coincidence.

The events are trivial enough that I'm not quite prepared to put it on my Best of the Year list, but I am giving that distinction to the sequel, Psmith in the City .

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Review: Mary Quirk and the Reborn Realm

Mary Quirk and the Reborn Realm Mary Quirk and the Reborn Realm by Anna St. Vincent
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

After a second book where I felt the pacing was off, this is a strong return to form in this quasi-cosy, non-typical UF/magic-school series.

I say "non-typical" because most magic school stories are made from box mix and closely patterned after a certain very popular series, and this is not. To quote the protagonist/narrator:

"There are no class point systems, no goblets of fire, and no duels or death challenges. Magic gets the best results when a lot of people are working together."

I'm all about books where people working together can achieve great things, and even though this is a single-protagonist rather than ensemble-cast setup, the eponymous protagonist is definitely part of a team effort in which everyone has an important contribution. Some secondary characters are definitely more prominent than others; it's a largish core cast, about a dozen or so, and not everyone can get lots of characterization without it turning into an epic fantasy chihuahua-crusher. But there's a strong sense that the other characters have arcs going on too, whether it's Bianca's realization that her ability to detect when people are lying doesn't always protect her against their manipulation, Dillon's mysterious gift, or Mary's roommate's conflict (which she won't talk about) over the fact that she's destined to be tied to the school for the rest of her life as its Keeper. These slower-burn plots are moving away in the background, while in the foreground Mary is wondering where her family are and how she can rescue or protect them (she basically can't, yet), what the dystopian elves' invasion plot is and how she can foil it, and what the heck is going on with the fairy terrorists.

I've mentioned that the second book, for me, had pace issues - the action started too late. Here, that's not a problem. While the first quarter is largely setup and recap, that's expected, and there's soon an inciting incident which inevitably means that Mary and her friends, despite their youth, are going to be doing difficult and dangerous things because there's nobody else who can. Along the way, they unearth bits and pieces of the various mysteries that make up the larger series arc.

It's not the all-action urban fantasy of a Dresden Files or Mercy Thompson or Kitty Norville novel, but it's not trying to be. It's not brimming over with teenage angst and drama, either. While there are dramatic moments of peril and tension, a lot of it is quieter, with level-headed teenagers working steadily on the issues that are in front of them to the best of their considerable ability.

I personally enjoy that vibe, and I'm looking forward to the other books that will soon be forthcoming, both in the main series and with different protagonists in the same world.

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Thursday 17 November 2022

Review: Magic Dark, Magic Divine

Magic Dark, Magic Divine Magic Dark, Magic Divine by A.J. Locke
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've read a few books this year that are sound in terms of their emotional beats - so they make it to my Best of the Year list - but have significant flaws that drag them down to the Bronze tier, and this is one.

Let's get the copy editing out of the way first. A collection of the usual mistakes (excess coordinate commas, occasional missing past perfect tense, the odd dangling modifier, vocabulary errors, a hyphen consistently where it doesn't belong - in "magic-era" when it's an adjective and a noun rather than a compound adjective - and the odd missing or incorrectly placed apostrophe), plus one I haven't seen before: overcorrection of "laid" to "lay" when "laid" is in fact the correct verb. It isn't great; it isn't terrible; I've seen a lot worse.

The real issue I had was the worldbuilding. The main character (we quickly learn, so this isn't a spoiler) is from the should-not-be-hyphenated magic era, a period 300 years before when magical practitioners and magical creatures existed, thanks to a set of portals that periodically opened to let particular kinds of magic into the world. Those portals had to be closed to contain a dangerous, destructive monster during a kind of magical peak that happens every 300 years, and that peak is about to happen again. The protagonist, Pennrae, spent all but the last eight of those 300 years in magical stasis as a result of disobeying guidance from a Diviner, one of the types of magic user, for reasons that seemed good to her at the time (and are, like the whole story, emotionally realistic).

In some unexplained fashion, she has, in those eight years, completely mastered modern life, got hold of whatever identification documents are required for her to live and work in a modern city, and learned karate well enough to be an instructor. She comes off as a completely modern woman in every discernable way, apart from having a history in which she was a magical bounty hunter 300 years ago in a very different world, making her what I call a "decal character": her origin is stuck on her superficially, but everything else about her makes her feel like she's grown up in the modern world.

She lives, in fact, in New York, so called and completely recognizable as closely resembling the modern city of our world, except for an additional park, a few monuments, and some other remnants of the magic era. Instagram exists, there are cellphones, and in general this is almost entirely the New York that you and I could go and visit, with a couple of mostly cosmetic differences. The magic era, on the other hand, does not feel like our world's eighteenth century in any way whatsoever, and the placenames and even the geography don't seem to correspond to our world either. The geography, in fact, is very unclear. The portals (it turns out) were in New York, a fact which has somehow been forgotten, unlikely as this may seem. Pennrae's mother and sister, murdered by a warlord in the magic era, are buried in an old cemetery in New York for plot-relevant reasons, so was the warlord's territory part of the modern US (or whatever the country is called - we never see any more of it than New York City)? Or were they, for reasons never gone into, taken to NY for burial despite dying elsewhere? Pennrae's hibernation took place in Namibia, suggesting they were in Africa, and they are of African descent, but if so, why are they now buried in NY? I couldn't make any sense of that side of things at all.

Also, everyone appears to speak modern English in all places and times we visit, but all of the terminology of magical creatures and magic use feels vaguely a bit Latinate-ish, kind of like in a certain boy wizard book, but not actually derived from any language I'm familiar with. It doesn't strike me as African in origin, either. It feels just made up, with some influence from real European languages, but by someone who isn't a linguist.

What the whole thing feels more like, in fact, is a portal fantasy, in which the "magic era" is actually a different world, and the New York that so closely resembles our own is our own; but we're told it's a part of the same world's history.

So, on the one hand, we have a modern-seeming woman in a modern-seeming setting doing modern things. On the other, what feels like a completely invented secondary fantasy world. And between them, a bridging explanation that for me completely failed to match up or make sense.

Still, as I say, the emotional beats worked well enough that I do recommend it. I don't think I will be looking for future books in the series, though.

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Monday 14 November 2022

Review: In Search of Beira's Hammer: A Fantasy Novella

In Search of Beira's Hammer: A Fantasy Novella In Search of Beira's Hammer: A Fantasy Novella by Kristina Young
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Very mildly amusing. There's mainly one joke, which boils down to "Hipsters, amirite?"

It's short even for a novella, and therefore quite linear. The main character lives in Berlin, and is bored by how flat the area is, so she goes on a quest in Scotland for a legendary hammer that can create lakes and mountains. Early on, she connects with a local troll, and they meet several other supernaturals while searching for the hammer. Everyone has exactly one quirk, and no more depth than that.

There are a couple of dozen footnotes that explain Scottish and, later, German phrases, most of which are clear from context or would be well known to a native English speaker (which I believe the author is not); few native English speakers will need a note to understand "rascal," for example. The German for the Department of Forestry is translated in the main text immediately after the footnote that translates it, making the footnote redundant.

It has the feel of someone who's been told about Terry Pratchett, and that he made jokes in the context of fantasy and put in footnotes, but who has either never read him or hasn't understood anything about his approach.

In the pre-publication version I received via Netgalley, the author also makes pretty much all the mistakes it's possible to make when punctuating dialog. I don't know how much editing it's going to get between now and publication, but I suspect not enough.

For me, unsuccessful.

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Friday 11 November 2022

Review: Greenmantle

Greenmantle Greenmantle by John Buchan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'm putting this one on my Best of the Year list for 2022 despite its issues, because it is a rousing good adventure story. Set (and also written) during World War I, and climaxing with the actual Battle of Erzurum, like the author's previous and better-known The 39 Steps it features Richard Hannay as the hero and narrator, making his way through numerous and varied perils. Here, however, he himself is the one involved in espionage in foreign nations, rather than opposing the espionage efforts of foreign agents in his own nation.

Like the previous book, the plot is rife with coincidences that enable it to progress (Buchan said of the first book that it was intended to fall into the genre of "shockers" that are only just barely believable). Some of those coincidences do get Hannay into trouble rather than out of it, and his choices do matter - for example, he makes unnecessary enemies of a German and a Turk, in both cases because they revolt his honest British soul, and both of them turn up again, largely by coincidence, as nemeses later.

As a book of its time, it does have elements that offend our sensibilities more than a hundred years later, particularly about colonialism and race. Several terms are used that are now considered highly racially offensive, and the author uses that unconscionable rhetorical trick of referring to ethnic groups as if they consist of only one person - "the Jew" or "the Turk" is like this or that. The implication is that these populations are monoliths, and their character can be summed up in a sentence. Ironically, he also makes the claim that British people, and especially Scots, are unusually good at getting inside the skins of people who aren't like them and understanding them - unlike, say, the Germans. If you can't set that aside and just enjoy the book for its action (and I don't blame you at all if you can't), this is not a book you should be reading. Having finished it, I understand why the person who recommended it to me said "Read it without reading about it; it's more than the sum of its parts."

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Monday 7 November 2022

Review: The Thirty-Nine Steps

The Thirty-Nine Steps The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Possibly a re-read; I have a vague idea that I did read it many years ago, but can't be certain.

This is the best-known of Buchan's books, probably because of the Hitchcock film, which I have seen (but which doesn't bear much relationship to the book). The author says in his dedication that he ran out of sensational fiction and had to write his own, but he's too modest. It's a fine early example of the thriller genre, which drives the reader through a number of well-paced, varied action scenes. Hero Richard Hannay, entrusted with the secret of a sinister conspiracy by a random neighbour who is subsequently murdered, goes on the run both from the police (who think he did it) and the conspirators (who are setting out to steal important British naval plans). It looks, early on, as if it's going to be anti-semitic, but it turns out that's just the odd prejudice (called out as such) of the murdered neighbour.

There's a good deal of coincidence and unearned trust used to keep the plot in motion and Hannay out of the hands of his pursuers, starting with the inciting incident itself; Hannay apparently just gives off a vibe of being trustworthy, and he keeps encountering people who he trusts and who trust him enough to help him without question. One of these people happens to be the godson of an important person in the Foreign Office, who happens to be one of the very few people who knows the secrets that are being targeted by the conspiracy. But it isn't all managed by coincidence; Hannay protagonizes too, with plenty of clever and daring escapes and impostures, and figures out the plot - which is not what his original informant said it was - using considerable intelligence. His background as a mining engineer in Africa, who has knocked around a good deal, fought in a small war, been friendly with a wide range of sometimes dubious people, and survived on the veldt, helps him a lot. He's also brave, though he doesn't think he is and several times confesses to being frightened (but then goes on and does the right thing anyway).

It's very much of its time, in that British people are the best kind of people, foreigners are dastards, women are scene extras, and people trust each other because they're the right kind of people and a certain standard of behaviour is expected of them. But it's also a well-constructed thriller with a somewhat more rounded hero than a lot of the contemporary pulps could offer.

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Review: Magical Artifacts Institute: The Complete Series

Magical Artifacts Institute: The Complete Series Magical Artifacts Institute: The Complete Series by Isa Medina
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Maddie Dover: Too stupid to live, too lucky to die, too cute to stay mad at.

So, basically a cat. She certainly has the curiosity and the always landing on her feet parts down.

To be fair to her, she does also come up with some plans that could be described as clever and brave, not just ones that can be described as naive and foolhardy (though some of those, too, particularly early on). She has a fun voice, and is an appealing and always well-intentioned character, who makes allies readily, an important trait in an urban fantasy protagonist (especially an underpowered one).

Her love interest is the usual reserved, brooding, emotionally defended hot action wizard, so we don't get to see much depth to him. But we do get to see her rescue him, more often than vice versa, so there's that.

The copy editing at first looked pretty clean, which is why I picked it up even though it seemed like it would be fairly light and insubstantial and potentially constructed mostly out of tropes. I suspect (I could be wrong) that a very good editor has been over a not particularly great manuscript and, inevitably, missed some things; there are a large number of places where idioms are fumbled, not quite the right vocabulary word is chosen, or a sentence changes grammatical direction partway through, but at least the punctuation is mostly in the right places. It was a light read, though not as made-from-box-mix as I feared, and I did enjoy it enough that it wins a spot in the Bronze tier of my Best of the Year list.

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Tuesday 1 November 2022

Review: The Tangled Stars

The Tangled Stars The Tangled Stars by Edward Willett
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I came for the space opera heist, but stayed for the voice, which is the kind of wry, noirish, bantering voice I particularly enjoy.

The heist, as it turns out, is not the main focus of the book; it goes off, certainly not without a hitch, but with no more of a hitch than anything else in the story, taking up a relatively small portion of the runtime. The whole book strikes me as having been written according to the principles of Scene & Structure , which propels the characters through the story and keeps up an excellent level of tension as they constantly face obstacles and challenges. The crime boss who is the main antagonist gets a viewpoint, and is thoroughly despicable, but not at all a cartoonish villain; cutting to him every so often and showing us something that he's doing that the protagonists don't know about and that will be bad for them, or alternately vice versa, makes the most of the literary technique of dramatic irony to maximize both the drama and the irony.

I've thought for years that having a character who was a combination of an advanced AI with a domestic cat would be fun, and it turns out that I was right. But he is far more than comic relief, becoming a key player in the unfolding events.

Everyone, in fact, is more than just their archetype plus their plot role; the characters are three-dimensional, they all want things which they can't have and strive to get anyway, they all have backstories that inform the action, their relationships with each other are important, and in general the character side of things is expertly handled. Add that to a well-paced and twisty plot and just the right amount of worldbuilding (a lot of the technology is sufficiently advanced to be indistinguishable from magic because, as the character with the first-person viewpoint advises us, it was created by AIs and humans don't understand how they did it, which is a great handwave), and this becomes an all-around triumph. One of the many moments of "Oh crap, what next?" comes at the end, priming the reader for the next volume, and I will be eagerly awaiting it.

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