Tuesday 28 February 2023

Review: Descendant Machine

Descendant Machine Descendant Machine by Gareth L. Powell
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The problem with this one for me is that it fell short in continuity, consistency, and credibility (not to mention creativity).

The background is that humans in our not-too-distant future messed up Earth pretty badly and then accidentally started a nuclear war, but fortunately (the first of a number of fortunate coincidences), just as the bombs started launching a physicist discovered how to access subspace, and this caused the extremely powerful being(s) lurking on Saturn to intervene, shut down the nukes, and exile the entire population of Earth to a fleet of enormous space arks, forbidding them to settle any planets because they can't be trusted with a biosphere. (This feels, for me, very like Becky Chambers, and not just because the whole of humanity is now in space arks; it's theoretically optimistic SF, in that the individual characters are well-intentioned, but it's deeply pessimistic about humanity as a whole. That isn't the worst way in which humans screw up in this book, either.)

The problem with consistency comes partly because sometimes the exiles are very familiar with things that Earth people are familiar with, and sometimes they're not. Depending which scene you're in, for example, the protagonist might mention that her gods included the elephant-headed Ganesh (described as such), or she might say, apparently sincerely, "What's an elephant?" (Her gods are referred to exactly once, and then never mentioned again.)

The humans have a new calendar, starting from the date of their exile, but when it's necessary to refer to the 'Oumuamua object, the date is given as 2017, not X years before the New Common Era. A lot is explained (it's all in first person) that only needs to be explained to the 21st-century reader, not the supposed audience of the fictional account.

In terms of continuity, a quantity of antimatter is variously described as "a hundred square kilometers," "a hundred cubic kilometers," and "a hundred tonnes". Those are three very different amounts. In conversation, a person would say something, and then a couple of pages later accuse the person they were talking to of having said it.

To talk about credibility I have to use a spoiler tag for the most egregious example. (view spoiler) But there are also a good few fortunate coincidences, cavalry rescues, dei ex machina, and other such creaking plot devices.

In terms of creativity, it's on the tropey end of space opera. You won't find much that's new here. It also deploys the current Easiest Villain: a right-wing populist. Yes, right-wing populists are bad. Yes, we currently have a big problem with them. But making one your villain can easily become a short cut when you don't want to devote much thought to it, and I felt that this was what had happened here.

As far as storytelling goes, it's OK. The emotional arc, the trajectory of tension, the main character's inner journey, all of that is... fine. It's competent. It's adequate. The copy editing is, apart from a few obvious glitches, decent, in the pre-publication copy I got via Netgalley for review, and the remaining issues may yet be ironed out before publication (or they may not). But I didn't feel that the setting was fully thought through or consistently depicted, and the continuity and credibility problems, of which I've only given the most glaring examples out of many, kept tripping me up throughout. This lost it the fourth star.

If you're looking for popcorn space opera and are prepared to not think about it too deeply, you'll probably enjoy this. But for me, it was underdone.

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Thursday 23 February 2023

Review: Charming

Charming Charming by Jade Linwood
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Let's get this clear right upfront: I don't give five stars lightly. And I certainly don't lightly compare authors to Terry Pratchett. But here we are: I've done the first, and I'm about to do the second.

Right from the moment he was described as "pre-crouched," Roland, Prince Charming's manservant, reminded me of a Terry Pratchett character, and his dialog reinforced that; he has much the same speech pattern as Gaspode the Wonder Dog, with more than a touch of Nobby Nobbs. On top of that, the depth of description, the clearly motivated (and determined, and ethical, except those that aren't ethical) characters, the more-than-competent prose, and of course the touches of humour all reminded me of the master. Admittedly, it's Pratchett that's faded a bit in the sun, less hilarious, less absurd, less intense all around, but that helps to establish it as not just a homage or pastiche but its own thing, even if displaying a clear influence.

So what is that thing? I've shelved it as "heist," but that's not entirely accurate; while Prince Charming is an itinerant swindler and thief, he doesn't so much perform heists as inveigle his way into a kingdom or occasionally grand duchy, often solving its pressing problem (with a genuine solution, to give him credit); get engaged to the princess or other noble daughter; express an interest in the security around the vault, which his prospective father-in-law is happy to discuss with him; and then disappear on the morning of the wedding with as much of the treasury as his beast of burden, the Mostly Donkey, can carry. Three of his victims - to give the names of their inspirations rather than the versions they bear in this book, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White and Rapunzel - happen to meet at a wedding, compare stories, and plan, not a heist, but a sting.

Bella (Sleeping Beauty), given supernatural grace by the Good Folk at her birth, is an expert swordfighter. Marie Blanche (Snow White)'s character incorporates the Huntsman who spared her in the traditional story; she can also not only speak the language of birds, but has power, or at least influence, over all woodland creatures. Not just squirrels, either, but bears and wolves and wild boars and even dragons. Rapunzel, having got out from under the thumb of her sinister mentor, has become a Doctor of the Arcane Arts in her own right. They make a formidable team.

Not only that, but they grow and change, coming to personal realizations in the course of their sting on Charming. It's this, along with the general quality of the writing, that elevates the book to the five-star level for me. The characters have depth and heft and dimension, and when you start with well-known fairy-tale characters (or even when you don't) that's far from automatic; it takes skill, a lot of it.

This is good. Very good. It's a strong recommendation from me.

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Monday 20 February 2023

Review: The Burning Page

The Burning Page The Burning Page by Genevieve Cogman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoy these books, not least because they are almost impeccably edited, so I can relax into the story instead of being jerked out of it every few pages because the author doesn't have a firm grasp on the basic tools of their craft, like sentence structure, vocabulary, punctuation and verb tense.

They're also fast-moving, action-packed urban fantasies, with varied challenges confronting a capable, determined, but not overly perfect or spoiled protagonist in a setting that's easy to grasp but provides lots of scope for different adventures. The protagonist works for an interdimensional Library that connects to multiple alternate worlds, the more chaotic ones dominated by Fae, the more lawful ones by dragons, and the ones in between a zone of struggle between the two. There's also a renegade Librarian who's trying to bring the whole thing down, and has a decent chance of succeeding. (This is not the book to start with, by the way; begin at the start of the series. There's a bit of recap, but not much, and the earlier books are good too.)

A slight flaw in this one is that there's a Cavalry Rescue by means that are markedly vague; it's portrayed as providing the viewpoint character with plausible deniability, but I'm nearly certain that's a thin excuse for the author not actually being able to figure out how it was done. Apart from that, and a very occasional excess hyphen, there was nothing I could criticize.

It didn't make it quite to five stars for me, because I reserve that for books that I absolutely love and that, usually, have a bit more depth of reflection on what it means to be human (not that that's entirely lacking here; it's just not much of a focus, and the conclusions aren't particularly startling). But it easily enters my Best of the Year list at the Gold tier.

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Thursday 16 February 2023

Review: The Serpent's Egg

The Serpent's Egg The Serpent's Egg by Caroline Stevermer
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This one left me vaguely disappointed, and the reason is, I think, that the characters lack competence, with the exception of one or two minor characters who are almost completely undeveloped. (Not that any of the characters are developed all that much.)

I like to see not only protagonists, but also antagonists, being competent, and here neither of them are. The protagonists succeed in part through good luck and in part because the supposedly formidable antagonist makes several stupid mistakes and is seldom able to execute any of his plans successfully. (view spoiler)

There's what is, I think, supposed to be a romance subplot, but it's so stripped back that it barely exists; the two characters don't meet through most of the book, their written communications are pragmatic and plot-related, and at the end, when they do get together in the same place, it's very adversarial and not at all romantic.

On top of this, the version I read was from Open Road (which I didn't check when I bought it), and is at their usual low level of professionalism and polish. By which I mean that, after the OCR scan, they clearly didn't bother even to run spellcheck, let alone paste it into Google Docs and spend half an hour locating the places where the scan had got the sentence punctuation wrong. I'm going to start avoiding their books; they're almost without exception as poorly edited as this, and there's no excuse for putting in so little effort to improve the reader's experience.

This was a book that had some strengths - the low-magic quasi-Elizabethan setting, the noblebright characters conspiring to protect the queen - but with nobody (including, notably, the publisher) being competent, it ended up falling short of its potential. Given that the other book I've read by this author ( The Glass Magician ) was also disappointing for reasons that aren't completely dissimilar, I don't think I'll pick up any more of her books in future.

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Monday 13 February 2023

Review: Much Obliged, Jeeves

Much Obliged, Jeeves Much Obliged, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Poor Bertie - he seems to spend about half his time avoiding getting engaged to the weird Gawd-help-us Madeline Bassett, who formed the very mistaken impression that he loved her when he was attempting to plead the case of his friend Gussie Fink-Nottle. Even though she's now engaged to the brutish Lord Sidcup, aka Roderick Spode, there's always the risk of a rift in that relationship. On the plus-ish side of the ledger, at least as far as avoiding marrying her goes, is Bertie's not entirely deserved reputation as a thief, which is mostly a case of misinterpretation (apart from the silver cow-creamer, which he did in fact steal, though nobody can prove anything).

A good bit of the rest of Bertie's time is spent avoiding getting engaged to Lady Florence Craye, who is also lurking about in this book, oppressing her current fiancé in her usual imperious manner. Said fiancé is (at Florence's insistence) standing for Parliament, and Bertie attempts to help, since he's an old friend and Bertie will always help old friends at any cost; his first attempt at canvassing, though, goes so hilariously badly that he withdraws in confusion.

Brinkley, Bertie's (and seemingly practically everyone else's) former manservant, is also in the vicinity, making dastardly use of the Junior Ganymede club book, which records the peccadilloes of club members' employers. All in all, it makes for a complex and satisfying plot in which Bertie once more struggles entertainingly, before eventually being rescued by the phlegmatic Jeeves.

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Review: Aunts Aren't Gentlemen

Aunts Aren't Gentlemen Aunts Aren't Gentlemen by P.G. Wodehouse
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The final Jeeves and Wooster book, and while not the best of them, certainly well up to standard.

Admittedly, the formidable woman that Bertie has to struggle not to marry might as well be Florence Craye, and her jealous, thuggish fiancé might as well be "Stilton" Cheesewright, except that both of them are out of circulation following events in a previous book, so these are new characters (or, at least, have new names). Wodehouse's socialists and Communists always seem to be hypocrites, in it for what they can get (ever since Psmith), and these two are no exception.

Major Plank returns from another previous book; he was always a stock character (the colonial military man/intrepid explorer), and remains one, but he does provide some tension as Bertie wonders whether he will remember their previous encounter accurately (to Bertie's detriment).

The author doesn't seem to have re-read previous books before writing this one, which he wrote late in life and many years after some of the earlier entries in the series, and gets several details from them wrong; the cosh is the property of the wrong cousin (Aunt Dahlia's Bonzo instead of Aunt Agatha's Thos), for example, and the wrong location is given for the fight between Spode and Gussie in which Gussie hits Spode over the head with a painting. This makes no difference, but it is a bit jarring.

The title (and the alternate title, The Catnappers) refers to Aunt Dahlia's scheme to nobble a racehorse by stealing a cat that it's fond of in order to send it into a decline. This is achieved with the help of the local poacher, Harold "Billy" Graham. The reference to the American evangelist (who became known internationally in the 1940s) is one of the occasional anachronisms in the series. Wikipedia claims that the Jeeves and Wooster books have a floating timeline, that they are always set in the present day as at publication date. The technological and sociological milieu, though, is always that of the 1920s or 1930s, so my theory is that they are always set then, but Wodehouse occasionally dropped in an anachronistic reference because he wanted to evoke a particular image in the minds of his audience, and one that would have been correct for that increasingly distant time period wouldn't have cut it because it wouldn't have been familiar enough.

The cat subplot supplies freshness to the formula, and all in all this is a successful Jeeves and Wooster for my money.

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Review: Time Traitors

Time Traitors Time Traitors by Eli Donovan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Disclaimers first: I got a review copy from Netgalley, and then another (more up-to-date) review copy directly from the author, who is on the same writers' forum as me.

This is a solid SF thriller in the manner of Michael Crichton (who gets name-checked at one point), combining time travel and dinosaurs, two of his best-known premises. It starts out an unspecified period into the future, but quickly moves to 70 million years ago, where one of the viewpoint characters is studying dinosaurs and the other is poaching them. The two stories converge after a while, and it turns out that the two women have a pre-existing relationship, which adds to the already high tension.

It's a pacey story, with a high body count among the secondary characters, but it doesn't skimp on relevant characterization, relationship development, or setting details (while avoiding infodumps and long scenes about the characters' inner struggles). There were a few moments when I felt a bit of a strain on the suspension of disbelief, but not too badly so.

Time travel is hard to write well, in part because it's easy to get snarled up in crisscrossing alternate timelines that make less and less sense the more they play out, and the author has cleverly avoided this by setting a "the timeline doesn't change" rule. Which is then broken late in the book, but in a way that adds rather than detracting.

Overall, this is a soundly written book that will satisfy readers who like a bit of SF content in their thriller or vice-versa. Personally, I'm more of a cosy fantasy fan, but I enjoyed it nonetheless, and it enters my Best of the Year list with no difficulty.

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Review: Miss Percy's Pocket Guide to the Care and Feeding of British Dragons

Miss Percy's Pocket Guide to the Care and Feeding of British Dragons Miss Percy's Pocket Guide to the Care and Feeding of British Dragons by Quenby Olson
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I saw a review of this somewhere, I can't remember now exactly where, and added it to my wishlist, then picked it up when it was on sale. I'm glad I didn't pay full price, because I gave up on it about halfway through.

I'd got not quite halfway and it was feeling a bit tedious, with a very socially constrained protagonist who was often passive, a large number of basic editing errors (including it's/its), and very little plot per thousand words. I can forgive a slow-moving plot if everything else is excellent, but this wasn't. So I set it aside, and went off and read four other complete books before grudgingly picking it up again.

And there was more wordiness (with a lot of parentheticals, in the voice of the author, not the character, which had worn thin quite early on), and another scene in which there was finally a bit of action but the main character didn't actually do anything, and a second it's/its error, and I decided to ditch it.

I liked the premise of a cosy fantasy about a middle-aged woman who deals with an unexpected dragon, but the execution just didn't work for me.

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Tuesday 7 February 2023

Review: Tea Set and Match

Tea Set and Match Tea Set and Match by Casey Blair
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Here is, in part, what I wrote about the first book in this series:

"The setting, unfortunately, is of the scenery-flats variety. I felt it was only just barely worked out enough to enable the plot. For example, there's never any definition of what magic can and can't do or how it works, enabling it to do whatever it needs to, and to provide analogues of contemporary technology like fridges... There are occasional intrusions of right-now-this-minute US liberal concepts... without any attempt to make them feel organic to the setting. It feels like it's mashed up out of bits of traditional Japanese and contemporary American culture, with some on-the-fly fantasy elements papered hastily over the seams."

All of that very much still applies in this second book, and for me is by far its biggest flaw, though there are also a number of careless typos (like "wide" for "side") and consistent misspellings (like "borne" when it means "birthed" rather than "carried," and "leant" when it means "loaned" and not "leaned"). Also, some missing question marks, and hyphens where they shouldn't be.

This lack of attention to key elements of execution drags it down from the Gold tier of my Best of the Year list, where the originality and reflective depth would have placed it, to the Bronze tier, meaning only just a recommendation. But if you don't care about plausible worldbuilding and don't notice mechanical fumbles, this is a warm-hearted, sometimes profound and overall enjoyable book.

I have to say, though, I did grow a little tired of Miyara, the tea princess, tearing into someone in what seems like a highly judgmental and confrontational way (presumably mitigated by her always calm formal tone, but it was hard not to read it as bitter and accusing) and, rather than making an enemy for life, instead forcing them to confront their own issues and end up doing whatever it is she wants them to do so that she can continue to save all the less-powerful people from her position of privilege. She is a little too perfect and successful, and her role as a catalyst in bringing everyone together (which she several times remarks on) makes everything about her. So far, it's not quite so irritating that I don't want to read the third book in the series, because there are some definite strengths here that I don't often see, but I'm slowly cooling on it.

Because it started as a web series and is only now being reformatted as three books, there's a lack of what I call "previously-on" to reorient the reader to the events and people of the first book. I did manage to remember who everyone was relatively quickly, which is not so much a tribute to their characterization as to how strongly they are related to the main character; it was those relationships, not their personal qualities, that I mostly remembered. But if it had been longer since I'd read the previous book (I read it three months ago), I would have struggled.

In summary, then, a book with considerable strengths balanced by equally considerable flaws, with the potential to be much better given a bit of work.

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Friday 3 February 2023

Review: Prince of Blue Flowers: Adventures of Takuan from Koto

Prince of Blue Flowers: Adventures of Takuan from Koto Prince of Blue Flowers: Adventures of Takuan from Koto by Ryu Zhong
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoy a good Asian fantasy, and a fun trickster tale, and this is both of those things. I initially put this on my "heist" shelf, but it's not really at the planning level of a heist; it's more the trickster character seizing his opportunities to put one over on the greedy people he encounters. The setting is mostly classical Chinese in feel, though most of the names (including the named gods) are Japanese.

I got a bit of a Monkey: The Journey to the West feel from it, not least because the trickster also has ambitions to fight demons as a monk, though he gets expelled from his monastery because of one trick too many.

There's a formula that ends each chapter, as in traditional tales.

Overall, it's a fun ride, and it's good to have a trickster character who isn't just motivated by greed or mischief but is directing his natural exuberance to a noble end.

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Wednesday 1 February 2023

Review: Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves

Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Not a great entry in the series; a good few of the gags are recycled from earlier books, and while it uses most of the characters and the setting from the hilarious The Code of the Woosters , for me it didn't catch fire in the same way. Still enjoyable, to be sure, but feels formulaic in a way that other Wodehouse (even if it's written to a formula) doesn't.

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