Tuesday 21 March 2023

Review: Coffee, Milk & Spider Silk

Coffee, Milk & Spider Silk Coffee, Milk & Spider Silk by Coyote J.M. Edwards
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I picked this up for free on Amazon, and as free books go, it's better than average - but that's a very low average.

The setting is indistinguishable in any way from a city in the contemporary US; there are phones, computers, the internet and social media, a teenager wears jeans (sometimes ripped) and band tees and says "OK, boomer." Except all of the people (apart from maybe the colourless bureaucrat, who is just described as "a man") are D&D-style fantasy monsters. That difference could be completely removed with a very simple rewrite - it has no impact whatsoever on the course of events - but it provides a small amount of much-needed colour to an otherwise bland story.

The following includes what could, if you stretch the definition, be regarded as spoilers, though so little happens that I would question the term. I'll put most of it in spoiler tags just in case.

A retiring cop's dream is to own and run a cafe. (view spoiler) When I tell you that her learning to do latte art is basically the climax, you will see how much of a high-octane roller coaster ride this isn't. The whole thing is a linear series of mundane events that needs to be taken aside, sat down, and gently disabused of the notion that it has what it takes to be a plot.

Sure, it's cosy fantasy; the stakes are supposed to be low, though important to the protagonist. But for that to work for me, the protagonist has to protagonise, has to solve her own problems through effort and intelligence and skill and determination and working to gain allies; the problems shouldn't just go away by themselves or be solved by other people while the protagonist is moping about them.

The low word count also means that none of the characters are developed beyond their stereotype and their role in the plot.

The editing is, at least, better than average, with a couple of exceptions. Most of the hyphenated phrases should only be hyphenated if they're functioning as compound adjectives, but that that's not what they're doing. And there's a (fairly subtle) dangling modifier.

Still, I was left with the feeling that, although the author clearly has a lot to learn, there's a good chance that she might learn it. A day may come when she writes a compelling story in an imaginative setting driven by the decisions and actions of a complex protagonist.

But this is not that day.

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Monday 20 March 2023

Review: Dead Country

Dead Country Dead Country by Max Gladstone
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Gladstone's Craft novels have been hit or miss for me, exhibiting several different flaws, some of which did serious damage to my enjoyment in a couple of cases. This one, for me, was a huge hit, the book that finally fulfilled the potential that the other books hinted at but fell short of. I gave five stars to Three Parts Dead despite vocabulary glitches that were mostly not present in this one, and I happily give this one five stars again. I even gave four stars to Two Serpents Rise despite even more vocab issues and an alienated idiot protagonist, and to Four Roads Cross , despite the frequent absence of the past perfect tense (it's only missing a couple of times in this one); I dropped Full Fathom Five to three stars both because there were too many unmodified references to our world and because I didn't believe the protagonist could solve the story problem. Based on reviews, I haven't read Last First Snow .

There's still an occasional moment here when the secondary fantasy world is too this-worldly, like an office building full of cubicles, but they are fewer and further between. The protagonist is my favourite Craft protagonist, Tara Abernathy (who probably won Four Roads Cross its fourth star, to be honest), and she Granny Weatherwaxes through a tense plot with strong personal stakes, philosophizing with some depth and in beautiful prose about principle versus pragmatism and the dangers of both, without bogging the action down in angst or navel-gazing. The secondary characters are vivid, and all have hooks into Tara that she struggles against, sometimes successfully but other times not so much.

There's plenty of varied action that is never for its own sake, always about something important, and excellently told. I got a clear, strong sense of the threats already abroad in the world and the creeping cosmic threat that was on its way. There was also a resonance with our own society's existential struggles to solve crisis-level problems without making things much worse, and the hopefulness of people of goodwill that, by joining together, they can solve those problems, conveyed clearly without it being too on the nose or in my face and without preaching specific solutions.

The book also doesn't share in the flaw of many popular books being published at the moment of self-consciously and obviously performing the prevailing orthodoxy of this exact moment in history, despite the setting being another world entirely. Sure, there's a gay relationship, and nobody seems to have a problem with it, but it's not spotlighted or commented on. It's just there, in a way that makes sense in the story.

Overall, one of the best books I expect to read this year, an easy entry into the Platinum tier of my annual Best of the Year list, and a contender for my Goodreads Choice fantasy vote (and probably lots of other people's) for 2023.

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Review: Meet Mr. Mulliner

Meet Mr. Mulliner Meet Mr. Mulliner by P.G. Wodehouse
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Prime Wodehouse from 1929, collecting stories published between 1925 and 1927. The framing narrative device is one that's been used plenty of times in English literature since: tall stories told in a pub (or club) over drinks. Wodehouse used it himself for the golf stories of the Oldest Member, and Lord Dunsany's Jorkens stories, which began appearing shortly after Wodehouse's, inspired a great many in the science fiction and fantasy fields. I'm thinking of Arthur C. Clarke's Tales from the White Hart , for example, but there are many others.

Like most Wodehouse stories, these don't have a clear and unambiguous fantasy aspect, though the last one suggests a ghost-like malign influence (with an unusual definition of "malign") over a house. They are far-fetched, though, and in the first one we're introduced to Mr Mulliner in a context (the bar-parlour of a pub frequented by anglers) which suggests that he is an unreliable narrator. One or two of his stories, which are all about things that supposedly happened to relatives of his, include scenes where those relatives were not present and could not have known exactly what was said, for example.

Mr Mulliner himself swears that he and, indeed, all his family are notable for complete honesty; he makes many other claims for desirable qualities shared by all the Mulliners, including courage, tenacity, intelligence, resourcefulness in a crisis, honour, great personal charm, good looks, athleticism, and of course modesty, in incidental asides scattered throughout the stories. They also have a tendency to triumph over difficult circumstances through unlikely means, including outright good luck and the implausible chemical concoctions of Mr Mulliner's relative Wilfred.

But it's the way he tells them. These are lively tales that dance along, scattering glittering prose like a wealthy man dispensing largesse to the crowd; absurd similes, ridiculous characters, sometimes-distorted quotations from English literature, bits of snappy slang, farcical situations and pratfalls abound, together forming something more than the sum of the parts. They're tremendous fun, and would make a good introduction to the Wodehouse style for someone who's never read him.

The book is available from Project Gutenberg.

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Wednesday 15 March 2023

Books Not Taken: The Wolf Song

Another in my occasional series on books that, based on the blurb on Netgalley, I chose not to pick up. There are plenty of these, of course, but usually I make my decision based on personal taste. The books I highlight in this series have significant problems in their blurbs, and I write these posts in the hope that they'll help authors who want to avoid driving people away with avoidable errors. Here's the blurb on Netgalley for The Wolf Song by "Caleb the Writer" (itself not a byline that inspires confidence, and nor does the amateurish cover or the fact that there's no blurb at all on Goodreads at time of writing):
A grand fantasy tale unlike any other. In a world that mirrors our own, violence and death are a way of life. Petty Lords fight for insignificant tracks of land, while pirates rule the waves and brigands stalk the night. Meanwhile, The Holy Aeternian Empire (or HAE), which reigns over the Kontinent of Gotheca (Götheßa), does nothing to protect its subjects as they fall into chaos and ruin. In the midst of all of this, a young boy would be born with red eyes. Unknown to him, he would soon bring the world to its knees. This is the legend of Wolfgang von Coburg- The Crimson Wolf. The Wolf Song is the first novel in the Blood of The Wolf King series. BOTW focused on realistic military engagements and historically accurate medieval martial arts, weapons, armor, and politics. Set in a fictional world that mirrors ours, follow our protagonists as they navigate the complex world of medieval war and politics. This is the beginning of a great and epic journey that will see the rise of great men at great costs.
Let's break down the problems here. 1. Almost without exception, anything that claims to be "unlike any other" isn't. If it truly is, you won't need to make the claim. Also, a violent setting with an empire that doesn't protect its subjects against chaos? A fated strongman? I'm not seeing anything fresh here. 2. "Tracks of land" should be "tracts of land". 3. Why "The Holy" rather than "the Holy"? And why give us the abbreviation in the blurb when it's not used again? Leave it for the book. 4. "Kontinent"? 5. Why would "Götheßa," with the German double S, be transliterated with a C? 6. Why the switch from present tense to "would be"? 7. Why would you abbreviate "Blood of the Wolf King" as "BOTW" rather than "BOTWK"? 8. Why "focused" rather than "focuses"? Everything else is present tense (apart from the "woulds"). 9. A blurb that mentions "realistic military engagements and historically accurate medieval martial arts, weapons, armor, and politics" suggests to me that I will be extensively hit with the research bat at the expense of plot and character development. 10. The repetition of the fact that the world mirrors ours (in which case, why not write a historical novel or historical fantasy?) becomes a dangling modifier. "Set in..." refers to the book, but "follow" is addressed to the reader. Also, the entire sentence is redundant, merely repeating points already made. 11. Self-praising blurbs ("grand," "great") always raise red flags for me. Let me decide on my own adjectives. 12. "Great men" suggests to me that there aren't any great women in this book. I find women, on the whole, more interesting to read about than men; at minimum, I like to see some fully developed female characters. I also would rather read about ordinary people than Special Hinges of History. That's back to my taste, though. An author acquaintance of mine once compared a blurb to a job interview, and added, "Dress nicely." This blurb has mustard stains on its T-shirt, and suggests that the book itself will have significant issues. Even if I liked books full of violence (I don't), I wouldn't be picking this one up.

Monday 13 March 2023

Review: Never Steal from Dragons: Pixiepunk #1

Never Steal from Dragons: Pixiepunk #1 Never Steal from Dragons: Pixiepunk #1 by Patrick Dugan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have an odd affection for cyberpunk (considering I dislike its typical dystopian setting and find a lot of its tropes ridiculous), and am a big fan of both sword-and-sorcery and heists, so this book, in which a mixed group of fantasy characters pull a heist with significant cyberpunk elements, looked like a good fit for me. It largely was, with a couple of reservations.

Reservation one is that the classic Neuromancer style of cyberpunk worked in its own time in part because hardly anyone understood how computers actually worked yet, and it hasn't aged well. Most of the cyberpunk jargon in this book is, frankly, nonsense, and how things work is definitely cinematic rather than realistic. For example, an AI warns the hacker that the tunnel he has into the system he's hacking "will collapse in less than a millisecond," which should take a lot longer than a millisecond to say; he then does several things that should take several seconds and gets communication from a colleague (outside cyberspace, so even if he is impossibly sped up, she isn't) that would take another five seconds or so, and meanwhile the tunnel has still not collapsed. There's a countdown clock at another point that, of course, gets right to the last second before it's beaten (and why have a countdown anyway, rather than just an immediate explosion?) You need to suspend your disbelief pretty hard at times, is what I'm saying, and just go along with the flow. The other related problem is that both the hacking and also the magic are not Sandersonian, meaning that we, the audience, don't know in advance what they can and can't do, so they can do whatever the plot requires them to. The author doesn't abuse this too egregiously, though.

Reservation two is that the pre-publication copy I got via Netgalley presents a remarkably complete set of common copy-editing errors, including not only excess coordinate commas, dangling modifiers, misplaced apostrophes, mispunctuated dialog, inconsistent and incorrect capitalization (such as for the names of the fantasy races and their places of origin), words left out of sentences, homonym substitutions, and missing past perfect tense, but at least one example of practically every other error I've ever seen as well, a total of almost a hundred. I could, if I wanted to, bring out a new edition of my guide for authors on avoiding mechanical errors, illustrated almost entirely from this book. If this is the pre-edited version, I would describe it as "rough, but salvageable with a lot of work by a good editor"; but the author's afterword suggests that it's already had a lot of work by a copy editor, in which case the original version must have been practically unreadable.

Leaving aside these reservations, this is an intricately plotted, fun heist full of noblebright characters from assorted fantasy races. Even though they're the usual ratbag lot of criminals you get in heists and cyberpunk stories, they're all good-hearted, especially the mage, and end up forming a tight team/found family. (view spoiler)

We get a fair amount of backstory and a lot of introduction to the characters, because the assembling-the-team part of the heist takes up approximately the first half of the book. I did feel this was perhaps a touch too high a proportion, and I could have done with one fewer character (probably the mastermind, who registered less with me than the others; I had to check back to remind myself who she was). On the whole, though, the character work was good, and I liked spending time with them.

It's set up for sequels, and I think I would read a sequel, even knowing going in that the writing mechanics might be poor and the suspension of disbelief would probably require some work from me. It's for this reason that I'm giving it a place in my Best of the Year recommendation list, albeit firmly in the Bronze tier.

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Friday 10 March 2023

Review: Esprit de Corpse

Esprit de Corpse Esprit de Corpse by Ef Deal
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'm so used to any book that contains an airship being full of bad punctuation, homonym errors, and unintentional anachronisms that I almost gave this one a high rating just for meeting basic standards of competence. That would be unfair to non-steampunk books, though, so its place in the lowest (Bronze) tier of my Best of the Year list for 2023 reflects a competently crafted book that nevertheless regularly challenged my suspension of disbelief.

The version I got via Netgalley wasn't completely without typos or homonym issues, and there was at least one apparent slip in the author's otherwise strong period research (the main character speculates that the airship might be coated with aluminum, which in the early 1840s was still not produced in industrial quantities and cost more than gold). I noted "dissuade" for "persuade," "twerked" for "quirked" (the image of someone's lips twerking is amusing, I have to say), "thence" for "thither" (a surprisingly common mistake made even by good writers), and "evincing" for "eliciting". The author also writes "endeared her" for "endeared him to her".

These are minor issues and easily corrected. What distracted me a lot more is that characters would often know things that we hadn't seen them be told, or that they had no reasonable way of knowing for sure, such as the contents of an automaton's chest cavity when they hadn't opened it, or that a place had been purchased by the railway company.

The other thing that bothered me most was that the main protagonist had a private self-propelled railway coach, and repeatedly used it without a driver, while focusing on her research or even sleeping; we saw right at the beginning that animals could wander onto the tracks, or trains could break down or be delayed, and she believed that the railway company didn't know about her machine (and hence would not consider it in their traffic plans), so this is ridiculously risky behaviour, just asking for a crash.

We're told early on that she graduated with four doctorates at the age of 15. This is a huge, dramatic "this character is a genius" decal, of the kind that often is not only not backed up by, but actually contradicted by, things we are later shown, especially in the steampunk genre; I immediately expected that she'd prove to be as dumb as toast. Apart from her stupidly reckless use of the railcar, she wasn't obviously an idiot, though. I suppose the claim of unheard-of genius is supposed to make it more plausible that she could create a functioning autonomous automaton (in an existing casing, admittedly) in a few hours, complete with senses, sentience, and the ability to understand spoken language, by means of programming with punch cards, something she hadn't previously attempted, even though she herself previously said that she couldn't figure out how you could fit an adequate power system into the space (let alone a bulky control system). It's still not remotely plausible, but it does count as a genre trope, so I'll reluctantly pass it.

I'm less inclined to pass the apparent conflation of welding and riveting, and less still the fact that the Persian necromancer wears a Sikh turban and writes in the Sanskrit alphabet. I suppose there are ways you could justify both - maybe he studied in India - but presented without such justification, it's jarring.

So much for the mechanics and the setting. In terms of the story, we are on firmer ground. There are a couple of love interests for the two sisters, and those subplots are competently handled with interesting arcs. While the genius character does need several other people (and the occasional mild coincidence) to help her resolve the plot, she isn't passive or lacking in agency. One of the secondary characters is both a flashback antagonist and a present-moment helper, appropriately ashamed of his terrible earlier behaviour, and not given a pass for it. That's a good level of complexity.

The plot moves along well, and overall, I was entertained. If the author is able to create a greater separation between author knowledge and character knowledge and maybe tone down the more implausible tropes, I think future books in the series will be worthy of an even higher rating.

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Monday 6 March 2023

Review: Beware of Chicken: A Xianxia Cultivation Novel

Beware of Chicken: A Xianxia Cultivation Novel Beware of Chicken: A Xianxia Cultivation Novel by CasualFarmer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Never was a book more deserving of my Deserves Better Editing tag.

And even though I marked about 80 errors, 80% of those are dialog punctuation, a good many of the rest are putting the apostrophe in the wrong place when the noun is plural, and the remainder are mostly number agreement, narrative tense inconsistency, and straight-up typos. These are not hard to fix (or for the author to learn the simple rules for, so he doesn't make the error in the first place).

Still, 80+ errors keeps it out of the Gold tier of my Best of the Year, which it otherwise would deserve (I consider anything above about a couple of dozen issues to qualify as Seriously Needs Editing).

It's clever. The premise is that a young man from our world (Canadian, like the author), with something of a farming background, is pulled into a xianxia cultivation world in the body of Jin, a low-level disciple of one of the qi cultivation sects, whose heart has just stopped in the course of a beating from his arrogant fellow disciples. Fortunately, since he's an isekai fan and also very even-tempered, this doesn't faze him much; he leaves the monastery with the goal of becoming a farmer somewhere quiet, without much qi, where hopefully arrogant, megalomaniacal cultivators won't bother him too much. A rat race for qi doesn't appeal to him any more than a rat race for money or status. "I had no desire to conquer the world. Eh, rice is more important than that stuff anyways," he says, encapsulating his attitude neatly, and "Why claim the heavens when you can make your own?"

Only once he gets to his remote location and starts his farm, his approach of exchanging qi with the land rather than only taking it (view spoiler) And it makes him much more powerful than he realizes.

There's a lot of good dramatic irony as he's just going cheerfully about the business of farming without being aware of what's happening (he gradually gets wise, but he's always a couple of steps behind events). Some of the time we're in his first-person POV, a normal slangy Canadian young man's voice; some of the time we're in the third-person POV of various other people, including his animals, and the voices are strongly distinct. Their personalities are distinct too; even the two pigs are very different, Chunky (Chun Ki) being happy-go-lucky, soft-hearted and not too bright, while Peppa (Pi Pa) is dainty but formidable.

And underneath it all is what can easily be seen as a satire or parable of extractive capitalism versus a more sustainable approach which appreciates how everything is integrated; damaging one part can damage other parts, and fixing one part can fix other parts, as he puts it when explaining to a (non-awful) cultivator he meets and helps. He also comes to realize (through this person) that though there are plenty of bad actors, not everyone involved in the cultivation system is bad: "I was thinking in good guys and bad guys, but most guys were somewhere in between.... You never hear about the reasonable people. It’s always the caricatures that get the screen time."

It's a warm-hearted, kind story, but it also has tension and conflict. This is managed well by point of view. Jin is always good-hearted and naïve to the point of profound wisdom in his nonviolent approach, but in the other points of view, especially that of Big D (Bi Di) the rooster, we see the farm defended against people of ill will with thrilling martial arts action.

Just as Jin rejects the normal xianxia approach of the world he finds himself in and forges his own path with qi, Casualfarmer refuses to write a made-from-box-mix xianxia/isekai novel while still doing an excellent job with those elements, and so creates something I'm sure is unlike anything else in the genre. (This is the first such novel I've read, but I've looked at enough others to get an idea of what they're normally like.)

It's fully deserving of its large fanbase, and I'm looking forward to the sequel, while also hoping that the author hires a copy editor. Or, if it's already been copy edited, another copy editor.

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