Friday 23 December 2022

Review: Hyvilma

Hyvilma Hyvilma by Gideon Marcus
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've enjoyed the previous books in this series, so when the author offered me a review copy of the latest one I happily said yes. (I don't usually review by author request, but I make an exception if I've favourably reviewed previous books in a series.)

Inspired by the classic space-opera "juveniles," this has plenty of action, adventure, lucky and unlucky chances creating opportunities for difficult, courageous decisions by the young cast, and (here's the modern bit) a strong sense of found family among a diverse crew. It stretched my suspension of disbelief a few times; Kitra definitely has Big Protagonist Energy, in that events distort around her in her strong narrative field so that the crew end up achieving great deeds that a small, young, rag-tag crew in a tiny vessel shouldn't be capable of. But if you relax and just let it be the over-the-top adventure that it is without thinking too hard about the credibility, it's fun and exciting.

It touches briefly on a political dimension (not obviously linked to current politics, don't worry), in that the crew encounter what seems to be a rebellion against the Empire, which some of them are not fans of, and have to pick a side; they do so, not based on any deep political analysis, but based on threats to people they care about, which... maybe deserved some more examination as a basis for decision-making, though it makes all kinds of emotional sense and so works well from a narrative viewpoint. It's a bit of a missed opportunity for extra depth, though, which keeps it out of the Gold tier of my Best of the Year list. This one hits firmly at Silver tier, meaning that it's a sound, solid piece of work that I enjoyed and doesn't have significant flaws.

Some excellent ink illustrations by the author's daughter complement the text.

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Review: The Art of Prophecy

The Art of Prophecy The Art of Prophecy by Wesley Chu
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is an example of a well-written book that didn't much match my taste, hence its position in the Bronze tier of my Best of the Year list.

With the exception of one consistent common error (using "may" instead of "might" in past tense narration), there are few copy editing errors even in the pre-release version I got via Netgalley for review. That's a good start.

There are several capable, and distinct, women as both viewpoint and secondary characters, which is great. And (the reason I picked it up) it subverts the Chosen One of Prophecy trope; the remaining viewpoint character is that Chosen One, and he's a pouty, spoiled teenage brat, and he doesn't get a pass for it. The women, including a woman in her later years, are a lot more interesting; this is often the case with stories involving entitled young men, but here they are also given most of the focus, something that often doesn't happen when there's an entitled young man around.

All of this is great, and is the reason (along with general competent craft) that the book goes on my Best of the Year list. The reason it only just gets on there, though, is the tone and the nature of the events.

I am very much not a fan of dark, violent stories, and this is one (though not lacking in noir humour). What's more, it's a dark, violent story in which the violence is always shown to be futile, the consequence of a corrupt system that pits the characters against one another and destroys innocent bystanders, and in which all of that suffering ends up making very little difference. Nobody wins. Nobody triumphs. At the end of the book, the characters are not in a notably better state (apart from the entitled young man having unlearned some of his bad habits and being potentially salvageable as a human being) than they were at the start; the various parts of the political situation that caused all the suffering are not resolved, or even much changed; and I was left feeling, "What was the point of all that?"

It's not all the way grimdark, in that three out of four of the viewpoint characters are, in their own way, decent people caught up in events too large for them (the fourth is an outright psychopath). But it's not far enough from grimdark for my personal taste, and I won't be following the series any further.

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Thursday 15 December 2022

Review: A Shadow Melody

A Shadow Melody A Shadow Melody by Brian Kaufman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a short novel that feels like a novella. It's written like a short story, with the kind of ending a short story often has, but it's really a novel that hasn't been given enough room to breathe.

Nothing is developed as much as I felt it needed to be. The romance felt cursory. The dark-fantasy element (I'd consider communicating with the dead dark fantasy, though it's presented in a context which otherwise suggests science fiction) felt inadequately led up to and not motivated enough by the prior parts of the story, which also felt disjointed, as if the child Harry we met at the beginning didn't have much continuity with the adult Harry. I think this is because while some of his abilities were the same, there didn't seem to be a clear emotional throughline from beginning to end. The twist also felt abrupt (and broke my suspension of disbelief: (view spoiler)).

I think it's the emotional throughline that I was really missing. I've reviewed a few books this year that I've put on my Best of the Year list despite significant mechanical issues, because they showed good storytelling ability and took me on an emotional journey that worked. This one is the opposite; there are relatively few and minor prose errors, but it's all chops and no gravy.

There are some missed opportunities, too, that could have created such a throughline. For example, while in college, Harry secretly admires his best friend's girlfriend; but after the two friends are both in World War I, she disappears from the story completely, even though she could easily have filled the exact role that is instead filled by the randomly-appearing and previously-unheralded Elizabeth. It's as if, with each time skip (child to college age, college to the war, war to several years post-war) there's a reset, and what Harry cares about, and the cast of secondary characters, are completely replaced. I think that's what makes it feel underdeveloped and too short; none of the sections is complete in itself, and there's not enough connection between them.

For me, this had potential, but needed more work to be satisfying.

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Monday 12 December 2022

Review: Johnny Lycan & the Vegas Berserker: Book 2 of The Werewolf PI

Johnny Lycan & the Vegas Berserker: Book 2 of The Werewolf PI Johnny Lycan & the Vegas Berserker: Book 2 of The Werewolf PI by Wayne Turmel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'm entering this series at Book 2, but there's enough previously-on that I didn't feel disoriented, probably helped by the fact that it takes place in a different city from the previous book and with a number of new characters, the key secondary characters from Book 1 playing only minor roles.

From a storytelling point of view, it deserves its place on my Best of the Year list. It's an urban fantasy with a noir feel, and the lycanthrope of the title is a classic noir PI; kind of morally grimy but generally well-intentioned, with a tendency to get badly beaten up, and well aware that he's not the smartest person in the story. In fact, Johnny claims that his other superpower, apart from being a werewolf, is that everyone assumes he's smarter than he actually is. He also claims not to be a good man, and arguably he's right, but also arguably he's wrong. It kind of depends on how you look at it.

Sent on what appears to be a simple retrieval of an item from Las Vegas for his boss in Chicago, he discovers that what was supposed to be a fake may not be; that his boss's rival for the acquisition of the item is going to stop at nothing to have it; that someone on the seller's side is working their own game; and that things are generally complicated, with a tendency to cause issues for Johnny in particular.

It's a well-told story with well-drawn characters. There is a problem, however.

I've noticed that books I get via Netgalley from Black Rose Writing are often worse than average in terms of basic writing mechanics like punctuation and grammar; that doesn't seem to be something they screen for when deciding what books to publish, and it also doesn't seem to be something they work on before releasing the books through Netgalley for review. I don't know if they edit them between that point and publication, but I really hope they do, especially this one. I thought I'd seen pretty much every way you could mess up the punctuation of a sentence, but this book managed to show me a couple that were new to me, as well as some I'd only seen once or twice before, and a nearly complete collection of the common ones. It's also weak on tense, sometimes using present tense where it should be past, or simple past where it should be past perfect.

I don't usually tag the books I get from Netgalley as "needs-editing" on Goodreads, because I assume (perhaps optimistically) that there's at least another round of edits to come after I see them, but this one is so dire that even a very good editor will struggle to remove all the issues.

Having said that, based on storytelling alone, it does make the Bronze tier of my Best of the Year for 2022.

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Review: Over the Moon

Over the Moon Over the Moon by S.E. Anderson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Inspired by The Wonderful Wizard of Oz , but in a space-opera setting. Rewrites of classic stories are hit or miss for me; this one mostly hit, with decent character work and a plot that doesn't rely too closely on its original.

The Dorothy character, Dora, has been raised on a corn-farming moon a long way from anywhere, told by her Aunt Emery and Uncle Wae that she is an illegal clone of the princess of the settled galaxy. She escapes danger in a ship that, flying automatically, crashes on and kills a technowitch, the daughter of the great mage, and must travel to see the mage in order to take him his daughter's locket and hopefully obtain a way to return home (where her family may be in danger).

Accompanying her are a woman with no memory who's been used by one of the other technowitches as a scarecrow while still in cryonic suspension; an apparently conscious AI; and a genetically engineered, lion-like super-soldier. Also Tau, Dora's pet mini AI, which she's constructed with her self-taught engineering skills, filling the Toto role.

There are plenty of antagonists along the way, which the group struggle against with courage and resourcefulness. The pacing, for me, was fine. There are several twists to the plot, too, which raise the stakes for Dora and end up setting up for a sequel.

There were occasional challenges to my suspension of disbelief. Not just the usual space-opera nonsense (easier to leave earth than fix it, lost the way back, wormholes AND cryonic suspension, single-biome planets, technology that's advanced in some areas (humanlike AI) but old-fashioned even by today's standards in others (printed books), technologically advanced genius engineers working almost alone in a location remote from the centre of things); at one point the super-soldier, carrying the rest of the group, climbs up a space elevator without a spacesuit in a time period that seems to be measured in, at most, tens of minutes, rather than the weeks that climbing any realistic space elevator would take, if that was even possible. (It's not made clear what the gravity is or the size of the bodies concerned, but synchronous orbit, which is where a space elevator needs to be anchored, is typically tens of thousands of kilometers high.) I guess when you're rewriting a children's fantasy that's more than a century old as space opera, a bit of unlikeliness is expected, but I did feel like the space elevator climb pushed it too far.

I read a pre-release version via Netgalley, and it contained a number of typos that spellcheck would not catch, because they were valid words, but not the words the author meant; these are particularly challenging for an editor to find, and I expect that some of them will make it into the published version. That, along with the sometimes unlikely details, drags it down to the Bronze tier of my Best of the Year for 2022, but that's still a recommendation, based on the strength of the storytelling.

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Wednesday 7 December 2022

Review: Mary Quirk and the Language of Curses

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

The author (who, full disclosure, is an online acquaintance; I paid full price for the book, and she didn't request a review) is starting to hit her stride with this series. This one, in particular, has a clear story problem, in fact several clear problems, that the protagonist is tackling in a sensible and effective way that involves a certain amount of necessary risk and conflict. There's a clear reason why she - a teenager - and some other teenagers are involved in dangerous operations that should normally be handled by adults; she has a rare ability, but she's not a Chosen One or any kind of damn princess, there's no prophecy (of which I'm very glad), and in general it's trope-averting rather than trope-conforming.

For example, it's more a cosy urban fantasy, rather than the usual noir UF, but none the worse for that. We do learn a bit more about the dystopian elven homeland and why so many elves leave it as refugees, but it's no YA dystopian full of factions. One of the best things about it, in fact, is that the class of teenagers have agreed to work together even if they don't always get on, rather than indulge in angst and overwrought conflict and love triangles.

It's the opposite of the "write to market" philosophy of analysing existing books to death and then trying to write the exact same book again, something I also refer to as "made from box mix" or, in extreme cases, "extruded fiction product," and as you can probably tell from my choice of terminology, I respect an author who's willing to be original and deliberately not go along with a bunch of tired tropes just because that's what everyone in the field is writing and reading. Inevitably, this will limit its audience (some people just like what they like and will keep reading it as long as authors keep writing it), but I hope it does find an audience of people like me who appreciate a fresh approach; a protagonist who's not spoiled, stupid, dramatic, or whiny; and just basic competence in the craft of storytelling.

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Friday 2 December 2022

Review: Hammered

Hammered Hammered by Lindsay Buroker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Lindsay Buroker hovers right on the cusp between formulaic and fresh. If you've read very many of her books, you know exactly what to expect from a new one, which is both their strength and their flaw. You'll seldom be disappointed, but you'll seldom be particularly surprised.

Having said that, she doesn't just write the same book over and over again, and certainly doesn't just rewrite other authors' successful books like so many indie authors do (her formula is, at least, her own); and although her characters' voices end up sounding very similar, their situations, backgrounds, and worlds bring the freshness they need to stay interesting. The books are well edited, with just a few minor glitches; the pacing propels the reader through the plot but leaves enough time for a few fun character moments; and in general they are, as I've observed before, the Subway of fast-food fiction.

This is the start of a new series in the same urban-fantasy world as Death Before Dragons. With the amount of mayhem involving supernaturals, and the number of people walking round with some non-human ancestry, it's increasingly implausible that the existence of magic, non-human sentients, and other worlds isn't generally known, but apart from that the worldbuilding is enough for its purpose. The protagonist, born on Earth to a dwarf mother and human father, doesn't know much about the magical side of her heritage, which means the author can be vague about how everything works and it doesn't seem too much like scenery flats. It helps that it's firmly anchored in Seattle, Washington as its main location.

Of all the familiar Buroker elements, I've always been least enthusiastic about the laconic, arrogant, violent, emotionally inaccessible slow-burn love interests (see The Emperor's Edge and Death Before Dragons for other examples), and I think I probably like this one least of all. I prefer a more even match of partners, as in the Dragon's Blood series, where both men and women are equally capable and equally insecure, and we get viewpoints from both of them.

Other than that, though, I did enjoy this series starter, and I'll probably pick up the others in the series at some point.

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