Thursday 21 December 2023

Review: The Tainted Cup

The Tainted Cup The Tainted Cup by Robert Jackson Bennett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I very much liked this author's previous series, and this, although in a new setting, contains the same factors that I enjoyed in those books. Most obviously, a very high-concept setting that enables a plot to work that wouldn't work anywhere else, but also somewhat morally compromised characters who are doing their best to do the right thing in a corrupt and even dystopian world. (Dystopian would normally be an automatic "no" from me, but when it's done this well - and is in the background rather than the foreground - it works.)

Enormous kaiju, who grow bigger each year, emerge from the ocean every wet season, and the might of the Empire is concentrated on keeping them from breaking through to the heartlands. And yet that's not what the book is about. Instead, it forms a suspenseful background to a murder mystery that could only happen in this world, where the bizarre mutagenic properties of the kaiju corpses are used to modify plants, animals, and humans in the cause of the anti-kaiju battle (and also for everyday purposes like building houses).

The protagonist is a young "engraver", whose alteration gives him an eidetic memory. He assists an eccentric, foul-mouthed but highly intelligent investigator who's in pursuit of a murderer with an unusual weapon: a modified plant that sprouts inside its victims and grows suddenly, killing them and destroying things in their vicinity. And soon enough, there are more victims, and this time they're engineers working on the walls that keep the kaiju out, and a wall is damaged, making it vulnerable, and now the stakes are even higher, and the pressing question is: will imperial power politics prevent the mystery from being solved and justice from being done?

I received a pre-publication copy via Netgalley for review, and apart from a few mostly minor errors and the usual overabundance of coordinate commas where they don't belong, it's cleanly edited (with a couple of months to go before publication still). While it has a dark and ugly side to the story that isn't to my personal taste, and which therefore kept it out of the Platinum tier of my Best of the Year list, it's thoroughly well constructed, compelling, and conveys a fascinating world and characters who have both internal and external struggles to cope with. Highly recommended.

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Friday 15 December 2023

Review: The Vondish Ambassador

The Vondish Ambassador The Vondish Ambassador by Lawrence Watt-Evans
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Better than average for the series, with the author's usual fresh premise. A young dockworker happens to be the first person the ambassador from the new Empire of Vond sees when he arrives in Ethshar of the Spices, and gets recruited as a local guide and assistant. Fortunately, he's intelligent and loyal, and both foils an assassination plot against his employer and helps the ambassador's mission to succeed. (I don't really consider those spoilers, because this is the kind of book where of course he does, and the real entertainment factor is seeing how he does it.)

Apart from a "crevice" that sounds a lot more like a crevasse, and a few minor typos of the level of missing quotation marks, it's well edited. I continue to be a bit skeptical about how good-hearted and averse to war (and, highlighted in this book, assassination) the people of Ethshar are, given that this is also a society that has slavery, but real human societies are weird and full of contradictions.

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Tuesday 12 December 2023

Review: A Little Heart: A Tale of Love and Destiny

A Little Heart: A Tale of Love and Destiny A Little Heart: A Tale of Love and Destiny by Vladarg Delsat
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I received a pre-publication version via Netgalley for review, and as I often do, I offer the disclaimer that it may receive more editing before publication, but that even if it does, there are enough issues that inevitably some, perhaps many, will be overlooked. Mostly, those issues stem from the author not having English as his first language (probably not even his second); the English is frequently not at all idiomatic, though I only hit one sentence that I found completely incomprehensible. He also makes a couple of mistakes that plenty of native English speakers make, punctuating dialog tags as separate sentences rather than part of the same sentence, and splicing sentences together with commas that should be separated by periods. They're all understandable issues, and not really the author's fault, but they do stand in the way of immersing into the story.

But what about the story? This was the more serious issue for me, and was what caused me to give up on it halfway through. Although the setting of much of the book is a magical school of the kind that has become so popular, there's very little focus on either the magic or the school. The magic, in fact, is not much more than a complication (it's incompatible with the technology that the main character, Helen, needs to help her deal with her serious medical issues), and that complication is quite easily resolved by more magic.

In fact, there's not a lot of conflict or complication in general, apart from the MC's frequent medical emergencies, and they're all resolved almost as soon as they arise. Everyone is kind and understanding and helpful, apart from a couple of adults who behave badly and instantly get fired, never (as far as I read) to be heard from again. None of the kids are nasty to the MC for more than a brief moment, and most of them are instantly and perfectly supportive and remain completely undeveloped, indeed undifferentiated, as characters.

Particularly saintly (and more developed) is Philip, who instantly befriends the MC when she arrives at the magic school and becomes her caregiver, selflessly helping her with a maturity well beyond his twelve years. The whole middle of the book then largely consists of: medical emergency, Philip does something that saves Helen, Helen gushes about how he's her angel and as long as he's with her she'll be fine, repeat. This became cloying to me after a while, and lost any sense of momentum.

I checked the ending to see if it was what I thought it would be, and unfortunately it was. (view spoiler)

The author is from Russia originally, though ethnically German, and it struck me that a Russian author trying to write a book that isn't about suffering is a bit like a British author trying to write one that isn't about social class, or a French author one that isn't about sex, or a Chinese author one that isn't about family: the book will end up being about that anyway, just in a different way from usual.

Let's be clear: as a caregiver myself, or just as a human being, it's great to see a book which centrally features disability and the many challenges it brings for both people with disabilities and their caregivers. The author, according to his bio, has personal experience of raising children with disabilities, and it's the main theme of his writing. It's just that, for me, there needed to be more tension in the struggles, and the solutions needed to be less instantaneous, and the characters more human and less perfectly saintly, for it to work well as a story. For me, it falls into the category of "Worthy, but not especially enjoyable as fiction."

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Monday 11 December 2023

Review: Who P-P-P-Plugged Roger Rabbit?

Who P-P-P-Plugged Roger Rabbit? Who P-P-P-Plugged Roger Rabbit? by Gary K. Wolf
My rating: 0 of 5 stars

This is a book with some faults, for sure. Not only does it need more editing (for excess commas between adjectives, missing quotation marks, other punctuation errors - including "rabbit's" when the plural, not the possessive, is intended - and homonyms like dowsed/doused and leeched/leached), but it overdoes the hard-boiled imagery more than somewhat, and drops an awful lot of brand names, presumably to give the feel of the time. I wouldn't mind so much, except it feels like the author is trying too hard for an effect that he's still not always pulling off.

Also, it's creepy enough that Baby Herman, a 36-year-old in the body of a baby but with the drives and bad habits of his actual age, pursues every woman in Hollywood; it's even more creepy that he frequently catches them. Please don't think about that too hard, or indeed at all.

It's full of small anachronisms, too, though the author tries to head those off with a foreword implying that his alternate version of the world differs from ours in a number of historical details as well as by having living "Toons". It's not completely clear when this is set - possibly 1939, since Gone with the Wind is about to be filmed and Clark Gable hasn't yet married Carole Lombard, though maybe postwar, since Gable's Air Force service is alluded to - but the foreword is signed "Eddie Valiant, 1947," and we get a number of cultural references from later than that. For example, the phrase "Say goodnight, Gracie" (from a TV show that debuted in 1950); a reference to Yul Brynner's role in The King and I, which began in 1951; a mention that Joseph McCarthy would have reason to target Edward R. Murrow, though Murrow's criticism of McCarthy didn't occur until 1954; and Rodan and Godzilla (the kaiju), 1956 and 1954, respectively. I think we can probably just assume that it's set generally in the period of the late 1930s to the 1940s (excluding the war years), in a loose historical continuity that isn't too close to ours, with the odd 1950s reference included by mistake. (In case you're wondering, I look up the references in Wikipedia using the function on my e-reader, and I happened to notice that a lot of them came from after 1947. The author, to be fair, didn't have such ready access to check this stuff when he wrote this in 1991, but that's also more than 30 years in which these issues, and the editing, could have been fixed but weren't.)

Still, it's otherwise amusing, and the mystery works as a mystery even when the comedy doesn't.

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Friday 8 December 2023

Review: The Confessions of Arsène Lupin

The Confessions of Arsène Lupin The Confessions of Arsène Lupin by Maurice Leblanc
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A collection of short stories from earlier in the Lupin continuity than some books published before it, which shows the multiple facets of the adventurer: clever rogue and trickster pulling off remarkable heists and daring bluffs, omnicompetent helper of the underdog (particularly if the underdog happens to be an attractive young woman), solver of mysteries, creator of mysteries, flawed and vulnerable human being barely saved by lucky chance and the goodwill of a stranger.

It's packed with action and clever plots, and even if Lupin is a bit in love with himself, he is just as remarkable as he thinks he is. The whole series is reliably entertaining, not despite but because of its varied and non-formulaic nature, and there are plenty of fun surprises throughout.

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Monday 4 December 2023

Review: Waterspell: The Complete Series

Waterspell: The Complete Series Waterspell: The Complete Series by Deborah J. Lightfoot
My rating: 0 of 5 stars

Even though this is much better executed than most books I've read lately, I ended up giving up partway through the second book. The male MC bounces back and forth between generous lord and scary angry damaged dangerous person, and the female MC/viewpoint character is understandably scared of him and unable to see his positive side, but also keeps making bad, headstrong decisions. They're believable as a teenager's decisions, but still often facepalm-worthy. The whole thing feels very serious and fraught in that YA manner that I don't love.

I didn't ship them as a couple, but apparently they become one later, which is what I thought would happen. For me, a romance doesn't work if it's between people who I think are toxic or foolish, and he's toxic and she's foolish.

Not for me, but it will have its audience. Kudos on the good editing.

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Review: Divots

Divots Divots by P.G. Wodehouse
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

UK title: The Heart of a Goof.

Only P.G. Wodehouse could tempt me to read a book of stories about golf and then make me enjoy it (though he didn't pull off the, I suspect impossible, feat of making me actually interested in the game as such). He does this by his wonderfully farcical writing, and by making the stories not really about golf; instead, they're about people who happen to be obsessed with golf, but who also have other conflicts going on (mostly romantic in nature), with which their obsession is somehow intertwined.

As usual in Wodehouse, these characters generally have no jobs to distract from their participation in the plot; they're either retired businessmen or people who apparently enjoy private incomes large enough that they can play golf all the time. (They're not necessarily filthy rich, but at least comfortably off.)

All of the stories have a frame which involves the golf club's Oldest Member buttonholing another member of the club, in the style of the Ancient Mariner, and insisting on telling him the story despite his obvious reluctance for the role of auditor. It's an extra bit of fun. (My father was also an enthusiastic raconteur, who was equally impossible to prevent from telling his stories, and it brought back fond memories of him.)

The stories originally appeared in magazines on both sides of the Atlantic, but the author still manages to make several of them sequels of each other. He cleverly does this by having the Oldest Member tell them to the same person, who says (after the first one), "You already told me that one," and summarizes the previous story's plot. The Oldest Member then informs him that this is a different story involving the same people, and proceeds from the point at which the previous story left off. This makes for a nice reminder for someone who had read the previous story in an earlier issue of the same magazine, and orients anyone who missed the earlier story too.

The stories themselves are pretty classic Wodehouse; the stakes are never any higher than a successful romance, and often lower than that, but whatever they are he makes them feel vitally important just by how much the characters care about them. There are misunderstandings, miscommunications, worms who turn, and even a cad reformed. It's enjoyable light comedy, skillfully executed.

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Friday 1 December 2023

Review: The Lost Plot

The Lost Plot The Lost Plot by Genevieve Cogman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

These are solid, well-written books with a protagonist who solves problems with courage and intelligence, despite occasionally wishing that she wasn't always the one who had to fix things.

You need to read them in order, really, to get the most out of them, though each has a separate story problem that's solved by the end.

Their big weakness, which I've mentioned before, is that it's never quite clear what the magical Language can and can't do, so it operates as a plot convenience - but that's less obtrusive here than in some of the earlier volumes. Most of the problem-solving here is Irene using her ability to bluff and/or negotiate with scary beings, whether they be fey assassins, 1920s-style New York gang bosses, or dragons. She has the near-impossible task of extracting a fellow Librarian who's been blackmailed into working for a dragon while maintaining the Library's status as a neutral force, something that would be a lot easier if she had fewer scruples about collateral damage.

The pacing is gripping at times, the challenges varied and ingenious, the editing nearly impeccable (so it doesn't distract me and bounce me out of immersion), and all in all this is a high-tier recommendation from me.

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Wednesday 29 November 2023

Review: The Meister of Decimen City

The Meister of Decimen City The Meister of Decimen City by Brenna Raney
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I made it about halfway through this one, but I wasn't loving it and switched to reading other things, then never felt like going back. The problem for me was that Rex is just bad at everything that isn't mad science, to a horrible degree, and the angst and ineptitude were eventually too much. If there had been a strong plot to pull me past all that I might have stuck with it, but there wasn't; it was more slice-of-life, which can be fine if I like the characters.

Has the very common issue that the author doesn't know when not to use a comma between two adjectives. She also overcorrects "laid" to "lain" when referring to eggs, writes "aids" when she means "aides" (repeatedly), and makes a few other minor errors. See my notes. For a supers novel, this isn't actually terrible, because they tend to be awful, but it needs more work.

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Monday 27 November 2023

Review: The Twelve Trials of Doug

The Twelve Trials of Doug The Twelve Trials of Doug by Jeremy Brundage
My rating: 0 of 5 stars

Let me state upfront that I'm a tough audience for comedy.

Having said that, the approach this book takes in attempting to be funny completely failed to raise even a small smile from me. It consists mostly of anachronism (it's set in mythical Ancient Greece, but has many contemporary cultural references; for example, the protagonist works for a yoghurt franchise in a food court, and is, of course, named Doug). There are also footnotes. I assume the footnotes were inspired by Terry Pratchett, but just because Pratchett made something work for comedy doesn't mean that someone else can do the same. The footnotes are frequent, intrusive, and mostly asides that are intended to be comedic but, as I said, fail to hit that mark as far as I'm concerned. I stopped reading about 10% of the way in, just before the announcement of the quest that I gather forms the main plot, so I can't comment on how well that plot is handled. To me, a would-be comedic book that fails at comedy can redeem itself by having characters that aren't just stereotypes with silly names, and a plot that works in its own right as an interesting story. I hadn't yet seen any evidence of character depth, but I'll give the plot the benefit of the doubt.

The book has probably had a very good editor go over it, since the mechanics (as far as I read, and in the pre-publication version I got via Netgalley) are mostly correct, apart from a couple of instances of dialog where the tag is incorrectly punctuated as a separate sentence. That's rare in the books I see these days, and deserves to be commended. So if your sense of humour is more like the author's than mine, this may very well be a good book for you.

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Tuesday 21 November 2023

Review: The Eight Strokes of the Clock

The Eight Strokes of the Clock The Eight Strokes of the Clock by Maurice Leblanc
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The author of this series continues to try new things with it, which I appreciate in an author of a popular series; he doesn't feel constrained to reproduce the thing everyone liked last time, which inevitably means some fans will be displeased. In Neil Gaiman's terminology, he's an otter, not a dolphin; he does a different trick each time.

This time, we see Lupin operating under one of his many aliases - the introductory note from the author claims that Lupin told these stories to him in the third person, but that he's sure the hero was Lupin himself. It's a nice way to trade on the popularity of an existing character while writing about, in a way, a different character. Because this is not Lupin the criminal (although he doesn't always stay within the law); we see "Prince Renine" acting as a freelance troubleshooter, ferreting out problems and injustices and solving them for people with Lupin's inimitable mix of brilliant insight, confident bluff and ready resourcefulness. He may prevent more crimes than he commits in this book, I think.

Part of his goal, aside from the inherent value of helping people and righting wrongs, is to impress and excite a young woman who he meets in the first of the eight linked stories. While Lupin is repeatedly unlucky in his loves through the series, he remains ever optimistic, and he's always at his moral best when there's a woman in the picture.

Unfortunately, the women, including this one, remain largely passive, acting more as an admiring audience than as effective characters with agency (though they occasionally do something important to assist him, it's usually a one-off). This woman has an opportunity to break out of this mould, but she muffs it, and Lupin has to step in and resolve the situation after all.

The problems are varied and the resolutions ingenious, and I continue to enjoy the series, though this isn't one of the best for me.

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Tuesday 14 November 2023

Review: The Ministry of Time

The Ministry of Time The Ministry of Time by Kaliane Bradley
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The general level of historical awareness among many of today's writers is... frankly woeful. So it's refreshing to read a book like this.

The premise is that the British Government has formed a secret Ministry of Time because they have got hold of a Time Door from the future, and they've used it to bring a few carefully selected people to the 21st century from their own (earlier) times, where they were missing, presumed dead. This includes Graham Gore, an actual historical figure who was lost on a disastrous polar expedition in the late 1840s, along with a World War I officer, a soldier from a 17th-century battle, and two women, one of whom came from the Great Plague of London in the 1660s. The other plays little role, and I've unfortunately forgotten her details already.

They're assigned "bridges," officers of the Ministry whose responsibility is to acclimate them to the 21st century with a view to making them useful, and the never-named first-person narrator is Gore's bridge. Like the author, she is half Cambodian but able to pass for white, and I suspect that at least some, and probably most, of the very specific experiences and details she includes in the narrative are the author writing what she knows.

This in itself would be promising: a modern woman with an uncommon background interacting with a Victorian naval officer. But the execution takes that promise and develops it more fully than I had any right to expect.

Firstly, the inner lives and relationships and interactions of the characters are beautifully observed and unflinchingly portrayed. As a matter of personal taste, I wished the author had flinched a bit more than she did; most of the last third of the novel is pretty dark, darker than I prefer, and I almost dropped it from five to four stars because of that. It is really well done, though, so I couldn't bring myself to penalize it for achieving what it set out to do so well, even if I didn't personally enjoy that part much.

Part of why it's so well done is hinted at in my opening sentence of this review. A lot of 21st-century authors (looking straight at you, Casey Blair) feel obliged to recite whatever the current orthodox credo of progressivism is, right in the middle of their novels supposedly set in a very different society in a secondary world. Kaliane Bradley is smarter and more nuanced than that; she knows that the values of the 2020s are not inherently the peak of history and better than all values coming from every other place and time, and that they too have their problems, contradictions, weaknesses and pitfalls. And she doesn't just tell us this, she shows us. Gore, for example, summarizes dating as "like trying on clothes for fit, except the clothes are people," which is as devastating a short critique as I've ever seen.

There's a lot of fine imagery scattered through the book, in fact, though not in a self-indulgent or overdone way; it adds to the vividness, it doesn't sit there drawing attention to itself for its own sake. The speech of the 17th-century woman rings true to me, too, and I've spent a bit of time studying 17th-century literature, admittedly many years ago now. In fact, the author's grasp of language is at a level that I rarely see, and I noticed few errors in the pre-publication version I got from Netgalley for review (the worst being "sojourn" used to mean "journey," which is the opposite of what it means - but that's a very common mistake).

Intelligent, well crafted, moving, nuanced and insightful, this book goes straight to the Platinum tier of my Best of the Year list.

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Wednesday 8 November 2023

Review: The Spriggan Mirror

The Spriggan Mirror The Spriggan Mirror by Lawrence Watt-Evans
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In a departure from the series pattern, not a coming-of-age story for a YA protagonist; this protagonist is an adult man. It involves characters we've seen twice before, in With a Single Spell and The Spell of the Black Dagger, which is more continuity than was common in the early part of the series. The mirror of the title was created in With a Single Spell when a spell went wrong, and is bringing thousands of spriggans - small, relatively harmless but annoying creatures who can't be killed - into the World. They're becoming a problem just from their sheer numbers, so the protagonist, who has a reputation of being able to locate and source magical items or ingredients for wizards, is commissioned to find the missing mirror so that it can be neutralized.

He does so primarily by applying common sense and talking to the spriggans, something the wizards didn't think of, though he does also use a good bit of magic. Quite often, the magic he uses isn't necessarily guaranteed to work and has a decent chance of making matters worse, but luck (i.e. the author) is on his side.

It's a fun ride, with a plot (and a resolution) that would only work in a magical world like this one.

And if you're wondering, the dragon on the cover is actually in the book, although it's technically not exactly a dragon.

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Review: Ithanalin's Restoration

Ithanalin's Restoration Ithanalin's Restoration by Lawrence Watt-Evans
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A return to lower, more personal stakes after the last couple of books in the series (one of which I skipped, because it didn't sound like something I would enjoy). A wizard's spell goes wrong and distributes his soul (or equivalent) between a number of household objects, most of which then flee the house and go missing. The wizard's young (late-teenage) apprentice must track them down and perform a restoration spell to get him back. The title kind of gives away that she succeeds, but how she succeeds is the enjoyable bit: she exhibits determination, cleverness, the smart use of her resources (including spells, friends, and a new potential love interest), courage, and a level of forethought that is, for her, a mark of personal growth.

The timeframe overlaps with The Spell of the Black Dagger, and the events of that book distract all the senior wizards enough that the apprentice has to be the one to take care of this book's problem, which is a neat trick on the part of the author.

Like a lot of these books, a coming-of-age novel - more so in fact than most of them - but none the worse for that. Still, it isn't the best of the series so far for me. It's perhaps a little bit too much of a linear problem-solving quest, with not much going on beyond that. Still enjoyable.

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Tuesday 31 October 2023

Review: The Spell of the Black Dagger

The Spell of the Black Dagger The Spell of the Black Dagger by Lawrence Watt-Evans
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The blurb, and the early part of the book, give the impression that Tabaea the Thief is the protagonist, and maybe that was the author's original plan - but she becomes the antagonist partway through, with the protagonist being the Minister of Investigation, who has to try to figure out (with the help and sometimes hindrance of a number of magicians) first who Tabaea is, and then how to stop her.

As the blurb conveys, Tabaea creates a magical black dagger. It enables her to steal life and inherent (non-knowledge-based) skills from people and animals (animal lovers may want to give this one a miss, though the descriptions don't get too explicit). (view spoiler) The way she degenerates from somewhat sympathetic protagonist (at least as sympathetic as several of the other protagonists in the series at the start of their books, anyway) to pitiful crazy person doesn't make this one of my favourites in the series, though it's well executed.

We get a return visit from the wizard of With a Single Spell, which is more linking together than this series usually provides. There's quite a lot of assorted magic, in fact, which is one of the strengths of the series, and the main thing I enjoyed.

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Monday 30 October 2023

Review: Taking Flight

Taking Flight Taking Flight by Lawrence Watt-Evans
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Departure from the (loose) series formula: this time it's not the protagonist who starts out selfish, unlikeable and unpromising. It's his love interest. She's immature, selfish and petulant. (view spoiler)

Still a satisfactory story, and takes us to a part of the world that the earlier books hadn't explored, but not my favourite of the series.

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Review: The Blood of a Dragon

The Blood of a Dragon The Blood of a Dragon by Lawrence Watt-Evans
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Unlikable protag, who stays unlikeable much longer than the author's other protags, drags it down. Not up to the series' standard for that reason.

The protagonist is also younger than most, at 12 (the age of apprenticeship), and is remarkably, pig-headedly, disastrously and self-sabotagingly stubborn. He persists in an obviously wrong-headed course of action for far too long, and even when he (by coincidence) discovers a way that he can have what he wants, is determined to take petty revenge on someone who's done nothing but help him, because he wouldn't (because he couldn't) give the protag what he wanted. He's also, throughout the book, set on taking petty revenge on someone else who, likewise, couldn't have helped him any more than he did.

This makes him a very annoying character, but the journey has some points of interest.

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Review: The Unwilling Warlord

The Unwilling Warlord The Unwilling Warlord by Lawrence Watt-Evans
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The protagonist this time is a gambler with probably-magical luck who discovers, to his surprise and dismay, that his grandmother was from a small kingdom where her family supplied the hereditary warlords, and now he's inherited that post. If he refuses, he'll be executed; if he fails, he'll be executed; and the king, who's an idiot, has managed to annoy both of his neighbours and all of his potential allies, and it looks like the kingdom is going to be conquered.

But the protag has grown up in a city which has its own ideas about war, and manages to recruit several magicians to help, which works... but complicates matters further.

In the course of the book, the protag undergoes the usual evolution from unpromising nobody to commendable somebody. It's believably done, and the journey is enjoyable.

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Review: With a Single Spell

With a Single Spell With a Single Spell by Lawrence Watt-Evans
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One of the things I like about this series is that a lot of the characters are magic-users of one kind or another, which is a type of character I enjoy. In this case, the protagonist is an apprentice wizard, but his master dies having only taught him one spell of seemingly limited utility (you can light fires with it, if you have some brimstone).

Obviously, the thing to do is to steal a boat, hitch a ride on a ship to a great city, and get recruited to help deal with a dragon problem in the Small Kingdoms. He then stumbles upon a highly useful place, but has to have the nous and moxie to do something useful with it.

I wasn't a huge fan of the final resolution in some ways, but he certainly worked for everything he got, and grew from a deceptive and unpromising boy into a man.

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Review: The Misenchanted Sword

The Misenchanted Sword The Misenchanted Sword by Lawrence Watt-Evans
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As I come to do this review I've already read several other books in the series (thanks, Covid), so I'll do a bit of a series intro as well as reviewing this specific book.

This is an early-Terry Pratchett-style series, in that characters and locations recur, but each book stands alone and is about a new protagonist. These protagonists are, to varying degrees, young (from early teens to early 20s, usually), and the books are basically coming-of-age stories. Typically, the protagonist starts out with an obvious fault such as a young person might credibly have: they're lazy, or selfish, or dishonest, for example. Over the course of the book, they grow and change from being an unpromising Everyperson to a solid character who we (generally) like and cheer for, and who achieves something remarkable.

The style is light and amusing, without ever becoming outright comedic.

The editing varies from not terrible to quite good; mostly the issues are simple typos, missing words (often "the"), and misplaced apostrophes where the noun is plural, and the latter is occasional rather than consistent.

In this case, the protagonist is a young soldier in a war that's been going on for centuries. (I found the multi-century war a bit hard to swallow, along with the idea that there were no prisoner exchanges. Also, (view spoiler))

He's a scout, and gets separated from his unit and stuck behind enemy lines, where he meets a wizard who, to get rid of him, enchants his sword. The enchantment... has its fishhooks, for sure, and while the biggest problem gets solved for him, he does protagonize trying to get out of his newly complicated situation.

One of the best features of the protagonist is that he doesn't actually want to kill people; he wants a quiet, peaceful life, and instead of this being a "reluctant protagonist" situation, it becomes a good motivator for him to overcome some obstacles. The resolution, despite the assist from a new character, is satisfying, and the character will have several cameos in future books in the series.

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Review: 813

813 813 by Maurice Leblanc
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Lupin robs a man and ties him, and his associates in another room, up in order to make his escape. Next morning, the man is found murdered, with Lupin's card attached to his clothing.

Lupin takes a lot of pride in not killing (though he skates close to or even over this edge at times in his adventures), so he sets out to discover the actual murderer. Cue a roller-coaster of suspense with a dark, dangerous antagonist who stays ahead of Lupin almost the entire time. Lupin, while still highly competent, has a lot of setbacks and outright failures to contend with here. Also, like his British equivalent Raffles, he turns out to be highly patriotic when he has to deal with the German Kaiser.

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Review: Arsène Lupin

Arsène Lupin Arsène Lupin by Edgar Jepson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A novelization of a play which is part of the canon/continuity of the series and referred to in several of the other books.

Lupin is snarky, cheeky, falls in love, fools various people, and in general is typical Lupin. There isn't anything significantly different that I can think of from the other stories in the series, but that also means that this is an enjoyable, exciting adventure full of cleverness, and it's worth reading for that reason.

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Review: The Crystal Stopper

The Crystal Stopper The Crystal Stopper by Maurice Leblanc
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A particularly thrilling installment in the Lupin series. As the series went on, the author seemed to progress his idea of Lupin from the original mysterious, omnicompetent figure whose exploits were observed from a little distance and largely through the viewpoint of his opponents. The Lupin of this book is the protagonist, and he constantly struggles against his own mysterious and dangerous antagonists through multiple reverses that produce plenty of suspense. He has a laudable goal in mind (saving the life of a young man, one of his associates), and has to exert all his ingenuity and courage and perseverance, getting badly battered in the process.

He's still operating outside the law, but feels more like a detective than a criminal. His main antagonist is highly placed, a member of the legislature, so there is a bit of a world-turned-upside-down aspect. The result is a suspenseful thriller full of varied adventure.

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Review: The Hollow Needle: Further Adventures of Arsène Lupin

The Hollow Needle: Further Adventures of Arsène Lupin The Hollow Needle: Further Adventures of Arsène Lupin by Maurice Leblanc
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Lupin series aren't at all written to a formula; the author tries very different things in each book, which is part of their appeal to me. In this one, the protagonist is a new opponent for Lupin, not a professional detective but a 17-year-old schoolboy with excellent powers of observation and deduction. He gets himself in too deep and faces consequences of taking on such a foe, but he does solve some difficult puzzles along the way, and it's enjoyable to accompany him. I don't think he recurs later in the series, unfortunately, because I'd like to see more of him.

Lupin is prone to falling in love, usually with women who disapprove of his criminal lifestyle, and vowing to reform, but the relationships always seem to end in disaster and not carry over to the next book. They're kind of like Bond girls in that way, but with a more traditional sexual morality.

One of the best things about these books is that the author is obviously extremely intelligent, and watching the characters plot against each other is highly satisfying. They're well paced, too, with lots of adventure, but not just for its own sake; the struggle means something to the characters as well. Here, too, since it was obvious to everyone that it was becoming a series, he incorporates the fact that most of the adventures involve Normandy (his real-life place of origin) and gives it significance to the plot.

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Tuesday 17 October 2023

Review: Arsène Lupin versus Herlock Sholmes

Arsène Lupin versus Herlock Sholmes Arsène Lupin versus Herlock Sholmes by Maurice Leblanc
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Lupin encountered Sherlock Holmes in the first collection of his adventures, but after legal objections by Conan Doyle the name was changed to "Herlock Sholmes" for reprints and in this second volume. This gives Leblanc license to be parodic, and this is not the Holmes of Conan Doyle; the imperturbable Englishman now struggles to control his rage, including at the frequent incompetence of his sidekick Wilson (who doesn't appear to be a doctor; he wouldn't be bright enough). Wilson has the pathetic devotion of a dog to Sholmes, who treats him worse than a dog, being completely unconcerned when Wilson is (repeatedly) injured in his service. He's still an unequalled detective, but is fooled by the criminal Lupin more than once.

In the end, both characters enjoy triumphs over each other, but neither decisively wins, which is as it should be to preserve their main schtick of being highly competent at their respective occupations. And we get to see a Lupin who sometimes helps people out when he feels they deserve it, and a Holmes whose interference can have negative consequences as well as positive. It's interesting, too, to read a Frenchman's take on the British national character, which is quite different from a British person's of the time.

The overly broad satire, for me, brought it down to the lowest tier of my Best of the Year, but it's still a recommendation, and I'm now reading the next in the series.

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Monday 16 October 2023

Review: The Extraordinary Adventures of Arsene Lupin, Gentleman-Burglar

The Extraordinary Adventures of Arsene Lupin, Gentleman-Burglar The Extraordinary Adventures of Arsene Lupin, Gentleman-Burglar by Maurice Leblanc
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was lukewarm about the Raffles books, the first two of which I read recently, but thought I would take a look at this French book from around the same time with a similar premise. I'm glad I did; it worked much better for me.

Rather than being narrated by a confederate like the Raffles books, this is in several different points of view; some are first-person as told by Lupin (though we don't necessarily get told that immediately), some in third person with him as a mysterious figure moving in the background and occasionally being spotted. He's a master of disguise with many aliases (of which Lupin is one, but it's how he's known to the public for his daring exploits); employs numerous confederates, most of whom don't get names or characterization but are just there to make it slightly more plausible that he can pull off his capers; and is able to commit daring crimes and (mostly) get away with them, because he's smarter than anyone else. Often, he manipulates people's expectations in order to lead them down a path of his choosing and away from catching him or foiling his crime. If he leaves a clue behind, it's because he chose to, and it will always be misleading.

We don't always learn right away (or sometimes at all) how he does the things he does, but we see enough of his cleverness to make the rest plausible enough for this kind of fiction. Because he's not a vicious or evil man, we're able to set aside his criminality and enjoy his exploits in the manner of a heist film. His victims are not specifically despicable in most cases, just wealthy, and he keeps the loot for himself, but he's seen by the public as almost a Robin Hood figure anyway.

It's competence porn, essentially, and it works. The author is clearly very clever also, to come up with these ideas, and if Lupin's success sometimes stretches plausibility, it only does so a little.

He does get arrested (in the first story), and imprisoned (in the second), and is even tried, but comeuppance is not really a thing he gets. Not even when he crosses swords with Sherlock Holmes, at the end of this collection of related short pieces. (The sequel, which I'm currently reading, transparently renames the detective as Herlock Sholmes, for purposes of parody and probably for legal reasons.)

It's a fun ride, and I'm glad to have found a series of older works that I enjoy enough to read more than one or two of them.

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Tuesday 10 October 2023

Review: Babbage's calculating engine

Babbage's calculating engine Babbage's calculating engine by Charles Babbage
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Of historical interest in general, though the details are tedious and difficult to follow without more diagrams. Honestly, the long Victorian periods would probably be hard to follow with diagrams.

Despite its attribution to Babbage, it isn't by him (the author is a Mr. Lardner), and it talks about him in the third person. It outlines the great importance of accurate tables of figures for various kinds of calculations, from land surveying to navigation and astronomy, and how difficult they are to obtain given human propensity to error; talks up Babbage's solution, the "Difference Engine," which would use his combined mathematical and engineering expertise to produce such accurate tables using mechanical calculation and printing; and closes with a summary of the state of the project, which was suspended by the time this book was written in 1834, and finally abandoned by the British Government (which had funded it to the tune of 17,000 pounds, or something more than half a million dollars in today's money - a relatively cheap project considering its magnitude) in 1842. Babbage was more interested in developing his ideas than in producing a working machine, and also clashed with his chief engineer, and his attention had already moved on to the more grandiose Analytical Engine, which would have been a programmable general-purpose computer if it had ever been built (or could have been built with the technology of the time, which is still an open question).

Babbage was, unfortunately, a combination of ahead of his time, lacking in the discipline to focus on one thing until it was done, and difficult to get along with - resembling many other creative people in these respects - and his early contributions were forgotten by the time technology enabled working computers to be built in the 1940s. But this is an interesting insight into the state of high technology, and its potential impact on society, nearly 200 years ago.

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Monday 9 October 2023

Review: Arsalan the Magnificent

Arsalan the Magnificent Arsalan the Magnificent by Jason Tolbert
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the second book I've read this year which includes a character talking about how important it is to take the greatest care over your craft and do the best job possible, the other being Casey Blair's Royal Tea Service , and ironically, both books are in need of a great deal more polish. This one I received pre-publication via Netgalley for review, so it's barely possible that it will receive that polish, though there's so much work to do that I think it's probably still going to be rough even if it gets a thorough going over by a highly skilled editor.

The main problem - apart from the author (like most authors these days) not knowing when not to use a coordinate comma in a list of adjectives - is that the author is setting out to write in a somewhat elevated style, and very much does not have the vocabulary to pull it off. Sometimes he just uses the wrong homonym, like "reigns" for "reins," but sometimes he uses a word to mean something it simply doesn't mean, or makes up a word by changing parts of speech even though there's already a different word for that, like "indignance" for "indignation". Quite frequently he just types the wrong word by accident, and spellcheck doesn't pick it up because what he typed is an actual word, just not the word he meant. There are also a number of places where the syntax goes a bit awry, or the wrong preposition gets used, or a word gets repeated, like saying that a place was "staffed with... staff".

It's set mainly in Europe, apparently in the late 18th century, based on the general feel of the political geography and the technology, but there are a number of anachronisms: not only the use of crossbows alongside rifles for some reason, but several 19th-century concepts or terms or bits of knowledge, like the protagonist's daughter knowing that bones are made of calcium. Places are sometimes given their present-day names rather than their historical names, like Czechia rather than Bohemia. At one point, a lake is given a name it's only held since 1962 (according to the Wikipedia lookup function on my Kindle). It is an alternate world, which I suppose could justify some anachronisms, though personally I suspect they're just errors.

In this world - and here is what drew me to the book - people who are born with an ability to work magic are all trained as magical architects, turning their powers to the erection of wondrous structures. They swear an oath never to harm anyone with their powers, which becomes an important plot point. I liked this a lot; I've often thought that if magic was real it would be turned to engineering and civil works a lot more often than it is in fiction, and this book gives us that.

It also gives us a compelling story of a man who, when his greatest magical work collapses on the day of its opening, collapses along with it. He loses most of his wealth, his wife leaves him, and his children have either already left (the sons) or disappear, fleeing from a psychotic suitor (his daughter; his search for her drives part of the plot). This crisis gradually brings him, and eventually through him his colleagues, to reassess their lives and their work and become better people.

It's a positive and hopeful book, in that just about everyone (with a couple of exceptions, who are presented as psychopaths) is a person of good will, though they all make mistakes and have realistic weaknesses, which they ultimately admit. While this isn't necessarily fully realistic to human nature in either the late 18th century or today, it makes for an enjoyable story. (There is a turn towards some dark vengeance at the end from one character, though, even if it is a form of justice.) The character work and the emotional arc are sound, in fact excellent, and if the previously mentioned issues weren't so very prominent it would deserve to be in at least the Silver tier of my annual recommendation list, with aspirations to Gold. Poor execution at a sentence level drags it down to Bronze, though.

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Thursday 5 October 2023

Review: A Witch in Wolf Wood: The Complete Series Books 1-5

A Witch in Wolf Wood: The Complete Series Books 1-5 A Witch in Wolf Wood: The Complete Series Books 1-5 by Lindsay Buroker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A middle-aged woman, divorced and laid off from her job, moves to a small town where she's inherited property from a recently-deceased relative, and discovers that that magic is real and she has also inherited supernatural powers. There's a hot guy and some crimes, and she starts a small business and has to clean up an unpromising location for it.

There are (it sometimes feels like) hundreds of books with some minor variation on this exact premise, and the number much more than doubles if you substitute "young woman with no ties and limited job prospects" for "middle-aged woman, divorced and laid off". I usually avoid them, because of the sameness, and because they're rarely well executed. But this one is by Lindsay Buroker, who I know to be reliably entertaining and to have a much higher than average commitment to quality, so I picked it up when Amazon recommended it to me.

She's known for slow-burn romance, but in this case the burn is a little faster than some of her previous books, though the laconic, violent but somehow still appealing love interest is much the same. Also similar is the banter (it's good banter, though).

I spotted five vocabulary glitches and five punctuation glitches, an average of one of each per book in the box set, which lands this on my Well-Edited shelf; I often see dozens of both in just a single book. The author can also use the past tense without error, an increasingly rare skill these days.

It's solid entertainment, light and enjoyable, and I recommend it for anyone who likes urban fantasy/paranormal romance but is tired of the low-quality cookie-cutter stuff. In good hands, even a well-worn premise can feel fresh, and this does, though it's not setting out to break any remarkable new ground.

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Monday 25 September 2023

Review: Raffles, Further Adventures of the Amateur Cracksman

Raffles, Further Adventures of the Amateur Cracksman Raffles, Further Adventures of the Amateur Cracksman by E.W. Hornung
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I didn't love the first book, and enjoyed this one a little less. It's even more obvious that Bunny's only positive quality is his loyalty, and that this is why Raffles keeps him around - to have a convenient patsy who will always do whatever he's told, albeit sometimes incompetently - despite the fact that Raffles also clearly views him with contempt. He never apologizes for abandoning Bunny to the mercy of the authorities when he made his own escape, either (which resulted in Bunny serving 18 months in jail, although to be fair Raffles didn't have a great time either).

The author, through narrator Bunny, argues that his books are not the bad influence that critics have alleged, glorifying criminals, because the two characters are living in fear and not even really doing that well from their crimes, which... is a point, if not really one that applies so much to the first book.

Both of the characters are, in their different ways, romantics; they've abandoned parts of their society's standards while leaving other parts, like jingoistic patriotism, unquestioned, and that's their ultimate downfall. (view spoiler)

All in all, not a favourite.

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Friday 22 September 2023

Review: Kakistocracy

Kakistocracy Kakistocracy by Alex Shvartsman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The first book in this series got a spot in the Silver tier of my Best of the Year list for 2022, and this one hits 2023's Gold tier. It's a solid urban fantasy in the vein of the Dresden Files, complete with the protagonist getting beaten up a lot, facing multiple adversaries, being good at recruiting allies, resisting being recruited himself by powerful factions, and cleverly figuring out that sometimes when you think you have two problems, what you actually have is a problem and its solution.

Some disclaimers: I received a pre-publication copy via Netgalley for review, and I know the author slightly online (we belong to the same writers' forum, and he has encouragingly rejected several of my submissions to his annual Unidentified Funny Objects anthology). I don't believe this has materially affected my review.

There have been a few events in my lifetime that have such a widespread impact on the shape of the world or on how people think about it that I can often reliably date speculative fiction as being written before or after them, such as the fall of the Soviet Union and September 11, 2001. A lesser, but still significant such event occurred in 2016, and I could tell, reading the previous book in this series, that the stories from which the novel was assembled were written prior to it. That book featured a bombastic, self-aggrandizing New York property developer with notable hair and a TV show, and it was pretty clear who the model was, but he was treated as a joke and not taken at all seriously. This book was written after the watershed moment, and now that same character (who doesn't appear on stage, but has a lot of influence on events) has become mayor of New York, and turned it with amazing rapidity into a dystopian place in which ordinary people who are capable of using magic are being harassed by goons who are "confiscating" their magic items, and are also being forced to work, unpaid, for the good of the city (so the mayor can boast about what a good job he's doing). It turns out that the mayor is being manipulated from behind the scenes by another character from the first book, the real adversary, but the protagonist and his friends have to contend with a city in which the legitimate authority is doing things that they feel they must, in good conscience, oppose, throwing their entire set of principles into disarray.

That's not the whole of the plot, though it's a central thread. There are also fae warriors who are threatening to kill the protagonist, angels and demons who he has to mediate between (I'm not sure why anyone would pick the irreverent smartass Conrad Brent to be a mediator between prickly eternal adversaries, but he does a surprisingly effective job), a former adversary who's becoming probably an ally, problems involving Brent's current and previous bosses, a conflict of loyalties between several groups who approach doing good from different angles, and a nascent romance. There's a lot going on, and it's all entangled together beautifully and resolved with a combination of intelligence, courage, perseverance, working together, generosity, selflessness and strong adherence to principle, by way of a lot of sacrifice and hard choices.

It's skilled work, and enjoyable; the banter is amusing, the action exciting, and the character motivations fully believable. There's some good reflection amid the action, too.

More than solid, and recommended.

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Wednesday 20 September 2023

Review: The Kuiper Belt Job

The Kuiper Belt Job The Kuiper Belt Job by David D. Levine
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I picked this up for review from Netgalley, even though I didn't love one of the author's previous books ( Arabella The Traitor of Mars ), because, despite some issues, that book was well written, and I wanted to give the author another chance. Also, I enjoy heists.

I'm glad I did give him that second chance, because this was highly enjoyable, well edited, well written, intricately plotted as a heist should be, and corrected two out of the four issues I had with the previous book.

I never warmed to Arabella as a character, never believed in the worldbuilding, was concerned by the white-saviour aspect, and dinged it several points for a deus ex machina moment when completely unexpected allies turn up, by total random chance, exactly at the psychological moment. This book has the third of those issues (though the chance is less random; there is a little bit of foreshadowing, just not enough for me to count it as a Cavalry Rescue rather than a deus ex machina), but the first two issues don't recur. The only worldbuilding glitch I spotted was that a fusion plant melts down and produces radiation as if it was a fission plant (I also felt the Maguffin was not particularly plausible, but gave it a trope pass), and I found the varied characters immediately distinguishable and memorable, with depth to their backstories and motivations that helped me to empathize with them.

The narrative swaps around between the members of a heist crew, each of whom gets a first-person point of view - and in the flashbacks that gradually reveal how one of their previous heists went terribly wrong and scattered the surviving crew across the solar system, damaged and grieving, the point of view is "we," because that's how tight they were. They're now all more or less desperate; their various hustles are coming apart, one of them is ill, and when the son of their old leader turns up to recruit them for a rescue mission for his father, they all have a mix of reluctance and eagerness to return to being a crew again, and the eagerness wins out. Along the way, they have to pull a series of varied jobs, one for each member of the old crew, mostly to get resources they will need on the rescue job, and this serves the important purpose of showing them working together and using their skills, so that when we hit the rescue it's all established for us. Nor does everything go smoothly on those jobs, and we see their full resourcefulness, courage, mutual trust and ability to improvise, as well as their solid skills.

There's a shocking twist partway through, so powerful I won't even put it in spoiler tags, that takes the heist genre convention of turning everything the audience thought on its head and turns it up to 11.

At first I was going to put it in the Silver tier of my Best of the Year list, meaning a solid piece of work without significant flaws, but on reflection it's good enough to make it to the Gold tier; the characters are rich and multidimensional, they wrestle with moral and existential questions without bogging down the pace, the plot is complex and twisty and doesn't trip over itself, and if the space-opera setting is conventional and has a couple of small flaws, well, it's just a stage for the characters to act on.


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Friday 15 September 2023

Review: Third Moon Passing

Third Moon Passing Third Moon Passing by Rina Olsen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have very little background in Asian myth and folklore, but I usually enjoy books that draw on it, so I picked this one up. It's crammed with Korean folk religion and its gods, in the context of a historical expedition by the US in the late 19th century to try to break Korea's isolation and open it up to trade, so I feel like I learned a lot about topics I was completely unaware of previously.

Where it didn't work so well for me was that there were too many characters that weren't sufficiently distinct from one another, and that didn't give me enough in the text to tell them apart, either in their voices or with a few words of description scattered in to remind me of their uniqueness. In particular, there were a large number of minor characters who were members of the Korean pantheon, all of whom had long names that were sometimes quite similar, and if it hadn't been for the cast list in the front of the book I would have had no idea, most of the time, who each one was (not that it mattered a lot of the time; they were often interchangeable). Worse, I had to refer to that cast list constantly throughout my reading, even towards the end of what is a fairly long book, because they hadn't been made distinct enough for me to remember who they were without checking. Even the two young human women from very different backgrounds who play a large role in the plot were hard for me to keep straight at times, because their voices were indistinguishable.

There are tricks an author can use to give characters more distinctiveness: a couple of descriptive tags that recur (Roger Zelazny's method, which is highly effective), or a bit of backstory that isn't part of their role in the plot but just makes them a more rounded character, or the vocabulary they use and how they phrase things. In the case of the gods, even reminding us which one was the god of gates and which was the god of the Big Dipper a bit more often would have helped.

I felt, too, that the plot moved slowly, and obviously not because the characters were being developed; more because there were minor incidents narrated at length, and places described in depth, where more plot or more characterization would have worked better for me. This may simply be a matter of taste or style, though.

The narrative style is a bit unusual. There's a first-person narrator, one of the gods, but sometimes it's third-person narration of scenes in which she isn't present, but apparently is aware of what is going on because it is relevant to her interests - not omniscience, because there are things she doesn't know until other people find them out, but something akin to it. Just because it's unusual doesn't mean it can't work, and for the most part this narrative approach did work for me, but others may stumble over it.

I had a pre-publication version via Netgalley for review, and there may be more editing to come; the author makes most of the common errors, but doesn't make them constantly, so it's better than most, but it could still stand one more polish. There's at least one place where the wrong name is used for a character, and another where a punch turns into a kick, but otherwise the continuity is good.

It's a first novel, and it shows, but there's potential here if the author can develop her skills, especially characterization. It's interesting enough that I'm putting it on my Best of the Year recommendation list, though in the lowest tier.

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Monday 11 September 2023

Review: Raffles: The Amateur Cracksman

Raffles: The Amateur Cracksman Raffles: The Amateur Cracksman by E.W. Hornung
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'm going to have to stop saying that Goodreads has never once recommended me a book that I was interested in, because it recommended this one, based on the fact that I'd read one of P.G. Wodehouse's books - though it would have been more relevant to base it on my having read Hornung's friend Jerome K. Jerome's books, or Hornung's brother-in-law Arthur Conan Doyle's books, which influenced this one and were later influenced by it. I think the GR recommendation algorithm is basically "You read book A (ignoring the rating you gave to Book A), and someone else also read Book A (probably ignoring their rating too), and besides that they read Completely Dissimilar Book B. Would you like to read Book B?"

Anyway, I did enjoy this, though it's not my new favourite or anything. It's well written, and pioneered a type of protagonist that is not one I prefer: the competent man of action who is morally grey at best. James Bond is in the Raffles lineage.

Raffles is a "gentleman" who has turned to burglary rather than work to support his lifestyle. In the first story in this book (it's a collection of shorts), the narrator, known here only by his school nickname "Bunny," who fagged for him at their public school (meaning he was a younger boy who served an older boy), confesses to him that he's in desperate financial straits. He's hoping against hope that Raffles, who he remembers treated him kindly at school, will help in some way. His "help" consists of recruiting Bunny to be his partner in crime. Bunny and Raffles are essentially Wodehouse's Mike and Psmith, respectively, if Psmith was less eccentric and Mike had a much lower standard of ethics and was the younger by several years. Oh, and if it was Psmith, not Mike, who was a good cricketer.

Their adventures are varied rather than merely formulaic, and Raffles exhibits considerable skill and intelligence; they're partly based on Doyle's Holmes and Watson, and Bunny, while loyal, is definitely the junior partner and, on the one occasion when he does something on his own initiative, almost messes up the entire job. They're also partly based on Oscar Wilde (another friend of the author's and of Doyle's) and his lover Lord Alfred Douglas, and the homoerotic subtext is very nearly text. A lot of Sherlock Holmes fanfiction is Holmes/Watson slash, with really no textual support in the original stories; this... is at a different level. I did feel, though, that the attraction was at least primarily one way, that Bunny was in love with Raffles but not so much vice versa.

At the time it was published, there was much ruffling of feathers about making a criminal the hero (view spoiler), with reviewers saying things like "at least it isn't produced in a cheap edition" (because then the poor and uneducated would be corrupted, presumably, and that's an assumption that could stand a few paragraphs of unpacking, but I will leave that as an exercise for the reader).

I plan to read the sequel, but I'm not champing at the bit to do so. It's well done, but not right in the centre of what I like to read.

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Thursday 7 September 2023

Review: The Lost Metal

The Lost Metal The Lost Metal by Brandon Sanderson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Sanderson is possibly my favourite living author (competing for the title with Jim Butcher, who hasn't been as productive in recent years), and the Mistborn books are my favourite Sandersons; I've given each of them that I've read five stars, which is not something I do lightly.

First and least importantly, they're almost impeccably edited, as you'd expect given the number of eyes that go over them before publication (judging from the acknowledgements). This one does have one probable error: "trestle" where it should be "trellis". But only one error (maybe) in a book this size is outstanding.

Second, they're exciting. They're basically fantasy supers stories; the inborn magical abilities of the characters are varied and cleverly used in solving a wide variety of difficult problems that also require courage, perseverance, teamwork and an unwavering ethical stance on the part of the protagonists. And lots of things go interestingly boom along the way.

Third, they have an ensemble cast, something I personally enjoy a lot; the cast is varied, they each get to have character development (a lot of it, which is a big factor in the five-star rating) and interiority, they work well together and respect each other's abilities, their voices are distinct, and which character has the point of view in each scene is well chosen.

Fourth, they're funny. Wayne, in particular, is hilarious, both in his thought process and the way he expresses himself (verbally and in his actions). There's a style of epic fantasy that takes itself incredibly seriously and never for a moment lightens up or gives us a glimpse of whimsy or humour, and that style is the poorer for it, and this style is not at all that style. At the same time, it doesn't try hard to be funny; it's not "funny fantasy" in the sense of broadly parodying its own genre with a cardboard cast whose main characteristics are their silly names. The humour is the spice, not the rice.

Fifth, they have high stakes and epic scope. That's not essential for my enjoyment; I'm all for a cosy fantasy, but I do like a good save-the-world plot too, and this is very much one.

That leads me to the one drawback of the books for me. They're set in Sanderson's connected universe, the Cosmere, which unites five or six book series and has an elaborate overarching mythology, some of which we get here; and the Mistborn books themselves are now seven thick volumes in the main series plus supplementary material, and several characters from the first trilogy (two books of which I read more than a decade ago and the third of which I've never managed to get to) are now figures of myth; and with all of this impinging on this volume and playing a significant role in driving the plot, I felt sometimes that the book was choking on its own accumulated lore. There were a number of places where I knew I was missing something because I haven't read everything Sanderson has written, even in this series, and what I have read I haven't necessarily read recently enough to remember all the details. Even the previous book in the series, which I read almost exactly a year ago, is complicated enough, and I've read enough other books since, that I didn't remember everything I was probably supposed to in order to follow everything that was going on.

Still, because the book works at multiple different levels simultaneously, it's not actually essential to follow all the details of the cosmic maneuverings in order to enjoy it. There's action, there's humour, there's lots and lots of character development, the things that are happening matter personally to the people who are involved in them, and none of that depends on remembering (or even knowing) what happened four books ago or in another series.

Apparently Sanderson's plan is, after the first trilogy (which was epic fantasy, but with a big old twist, and also a supers heist), and this second group of four (which is kind of steampunk, but also with a lot of supers and heists), that the third set of books will be sort of cyberpunkish (I'm betting on supers and heists, though), and the fourth will be space opera. I'm very much looking forward to them, because whatever Sanderson writes is well written, and I largely come for the style, not the genre. (Plus I like all of those genres, though I like epic fantasy the least.)

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Thursday 31 August 2023

Review: The Choking Rain

The Choking Rain The Choking Rain by Brian Lowe
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Disclaimer first: I picked up this book because the author, who is a fellow member of a writers' forum I belong to, mentioned it in the Books for Review thread on that forum. I don't know the author well.

This is an old-school pulp adventure, set in 1932, that could almost have been written in that year, down to contemporary references and subtleties of language. That's quite an achievement, though it does border on a fault insofar as the characters are no deeper than 1930s pulp characters would be. They have a small amount of backstory and a couple of quirks and their role in the plot, and that's about it. At times I struggled to distinguish Mary from Kate, and Ted from Eric, and "Professor Death" (whose nickname was never explained) from Damian - not so much that I was confused about who was who, but they did feel very similar to one another. I also felt that some of the characters' specific skills could have been brought out more; some could have seen more use, like Damian's chemistry knowledge, while others (the mastery of disguise by one character, for example) could have been better foreshadowed.

Kate's linguistic abilities and martial arts prowess did get a good amount of use, and her prominence and agency in the plot were a good update that probably wouldn't have appeared in many 1930s pulps; even though she does get captured through being, as she herself puts it, "too stupid to live," she contributes significantly to her own escape rather than being passively rescued. While I wouldn't say that the book has 21st-century sensibilities in the way that some books being written at the moment ignore the way historical people actually thought at the time and impose current thinking and language, it also avoids the casual sexism and racism that was prevalent in many (though not all) books a century ago, and treats its female and non-western characters with respect.

The author deliberately withholds information from the reader that's available to the characters at times, and even engages in deception, though my suspicion that he'd outright lied in the narrative at one point turned out to be technically incorrect. I haven't read enough 1930s pulp to know if this is part of the genre or specific to this author. I found it mildly annoying while it was happening, though it did set up some good reveals that compensated. (I still correctly guessed the biggest reveal, though not the other two about who was a hero and who a villain.) The advantage for the author of doing this is that he can almost get away with some events early on, when the reader doesn't know what's happening, that don't make complete sense in light of the final revelations. I was left with a number of questions, though, in retrospect. (view spoiler)

The antagonists are early Nazis, always a strong choice, because you don't have to exaggerate to make them thoroughly villainous. The McGuffin is a clever idea, and more than plausible enough for pulp. While the plot does need a couple of minor Convenient Eavesdrops and at least one small Fortunate Coincidence to help it along, they're not egregious or constant, and the agency of appropriately motivated characters is the main plot driver.

While it's not without its minor flaws, anyone who enjoys 1930s pulp, which was often a lot more flawed in all the same ways and several others, should find it a fun ride; it has the strengths of that genre too, with a variety of challenges overcome by a mixture of intelligence, bravery and determination.

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Wednesday 30 August 2023

Review: The Dragons of Deepwood Fen

The Dragons of Deepwood Fen The Dragons of Deepwood Fen by Bradley P. Beaulieu
My rating: 0 of 5 stars

It's been years since I read this style of full-on epic fantasy, where innocents die brutally in the prologue and then we get a lot of (initially) unconnected POVs all centering around a Big Bad Thing, and it's all very serious.

What I'd forgotten in those years is that I don't actually enjoy that kind of book very much, as a matter of personal taste; I like multiple POVs, but in a more connected, intimate arrangement, and prefer my fantasy to have at least some lightheartedness somewhere in it.

But if you like this kind of thing, this is definitely one, and an above-average one if a careful editor adds in all the missing words and takes out the many unnecessary coordinate commas before publication.

I received a pre-publication review copy via Netgalley.

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Friday 25 August 2023

Review: Town Guard

Town Guard Town Guard by Jake Brannigan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I haven't tried to read a full-on LitRPG before, so this was interesting. It makes no real attempt to make the presumable game-world plausible in its own internal terms, and the game aspects (stats, character sheets, punctuation that calls out the skills and inventory items as special) were obtrusive, but I'm guessing that comes with the territory. From poking around, I've gained the impression that LitRPG is normally terribly edited, and although this definitely needed more editing, mainly for typos and internal inconsistencies, it was better than plenty of other books I've read lately; the author at least has a basic grasp of commas and can (mostly) narrate competently in the past tense. He also knows the difference between a hoard and a horde, and uses the correct spelling for "discreet," which plenty of people who make few other mistakes get wrong. On the other hand, he is given to stating the blindingly obvious, such as that no mortal is immortal, or that a small park is not large, and sometimes displays a bit of ignorance about the world and how it works, like referring to a tailor "knitting" a shirt made of fine fabric. He puts an apostrophe in "heads up" that doesn't belong there, and occasionally uses the wrong preposition, such as "with 50 yards" instead of "within 50 yards". And he writes "wailing" where he means "whaling".

He's clearly young, not only because of the slang he uses but because he says at one point "the old man was nearly 50," so he gets a bit of a n00b pass for not knowing things.

The other sign of youth is an adolescent obsession with sex at times, though it mostly takes the form of innuendo or reference to people having or wanting to have sex; there's nothing outright explicit on screen, so it's PG rather than R.

The protagonist is also young; he turns 16 early in the book, which is the age at which people can choose a class (or have one chosen for them by the gods) in his world. (It's also the age of consent, taken very literally; the gods prevent people under 14 from any sexual expression at all, those 14-15 from anything more than kissing and cuddling, and those over 16 from anything that isn't consented to by both parties, and one can only be with people of one's own age range.) Despite his youth, he's serious-minded and absolutely determined to do the right thing, which is usually putting himself at risk in order to protect others. I liked that aspect of his character.

As the blurb gives away, this leads to him being classed as a Town Guard, a deliberately OP class that makes sure towns are safe places - but they can't leave the town they're assigned to until they reach level 20, which torpedoes his life plans. The actual moment at which he becomes a Town Guard doesn't come until almost halfway through, so the first half of the book is spent establishing the characters and their relationships, and setting up some mysteries and conflicts. I didn't feel it went too slowly; there were some action scenes that were both varied and well described scattered throughout, the characters were interesting to spend time with, and the various mysteries piqued my curiosity.

I found the resolution of the various mysteries and conflicts satisfying, and appreciated that Glenn wasn't just good-hearted and brave and loyal, but also smart. He worked with others effectively, too; he wasn't just a solo hero.

I definitely look forward to reading the sequel, and this easily makes it onto my Best of the Year list. I've put it at the Bronze tier, the lowest, but it's high Bronze; I just can't quite justify Silver given the need for more polish, especially when it comes to internal consistency and continuity. Still, a promising debut.

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