Wednesday 28 June 2023

Review: The Feather and the Lamp: An Imperceptibility Happenstance Adventure

The Feather and the Lamp: An Imperceptibility Happenstance Adventure The Feather and the Lamp: An Imperceptibility Happenstance Adventure by L.N. Hunter
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Disclaimer upfront: I received a review copy from the author, who mentioned it on the Books for Review thread of a writers' forum we both belong to. I hadn't previously interacted with the author and I received only the free copy in exchange for my review.

Recognizably in the vein of the late lamented Terry Pratchett, The Feather and the Lamp takes place in a world that feels a little darker than the Diskworld, with aspirants to the Adventurers' Guild being condemned to death if the (metaphorical) dragon who is the Gatekeeper deems them to be timewasters. (We are later told that the sentence is often commuted by the Guild's Council, though that still leaves the question of how a guild which isn't a government has the right to condemn people to death in the first place; but judging by how the Gatekeeper speaks to a prince, they're a powerful enough group that they can do whatever they like with impunity.) Into this guild comes Imperceptibility Happenstance, which is the kind of silly name that usually raises red flags with me in funny fantasy; too often, the "funny" in "funny fantasy" consists solely of silly names and tropes. Fortunately, that's not the case here, and we get a story that works in its own terms as well as being frequently amusing.

Her surname is, however, a bit of a clue, in retrospect. Though she does act with generosity, intelligence and determination throughout, Miss Happenstance (or Itty, as she likes to be known) is also very lucky, and frequently relies on the kindness of strangers to help get her out of the situations that her lamp djinn has put her into. The djinn has the power to make her forget that he exists, and is also allowed, under the rules, to get her killed, which, if he achieves it before she makes all three of her wishes, will free him from the lamp. The thing is, he doesn't seem to be trying all that hard, or else her luck is more powerful than he is; at one point, he even helps her to phrase her second wish more effectively rather than attempting to sabotage her again. The playing field is definitely tilted in Itty's favour, is what I'm saying, though she doesn't just get handed all of her solutions; she does often have to work for them, and has a bad time sometimes along the way, though it doesn't drag her cheerful spirit down much.

What makes up for her luckiness in my eyes is that she's also kind and generous, always looking for the best outcome for everyone, not just herself. Even when she encounters a ruthless businessman who is her exact opposite in this regard, she persists in looking for a way in which everyone, even him, can get something they want. She doesn't hold grudges or hang onto regrets, either. She's an enjoyable character to follow around, more likeable than, say, Rincewind, and the world we follow her through is populated with other fun characters who often have that Pratchettian slightly distorted echo of our own world that at the same time manages to be a more than usually clever pun.

I'd happily follow this eccentric young woman through more books, so I'm glad the author has some planned. This one comfortably sits on the Silver tier of my Best of the Year list, solid work with plenty to recommend it.

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Review: Guardian of Chaos

Guardian of Chaos Guardian of Chaos by Michelle Manus
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There are a lot of bad paranormal suspense books around. People take the same premise and just write it over and over, it seems, usually not very competently. This book is also open to the accusation of having a well-worn premise, or rather a couple of them: the main character gets introduced to the existence of magic in her 20s and discovers she's someone important; there's a hidden travel nexus that visitors from other worlds use, and the main character becomes its guardian. But it handles these ideas well, for the most part, and certainly the suspense part is well done, and the character is neither an idiot who's supposed to be highly intelligent or a neurotic mess who's supposed to be competent, so points for that.

Like every book I've bought via BookBub in the past couple of years, it needs more editing, by someone with a good vocabulary who knows the difference between subsequently and consequently, askance and askew, peeling and pealing, rivets and divots, running the gauntlet and running the gamut, turning someone "into" the authorities versus turning them "in to" the authorities, that "all though" isn't how you spell "although", and that "brethren" is plural; who knows when not to use a hyphen (not for numbers that aren't between 21 and 99, not between words that aren't currently functioning as an adjectival phrase directly modifying a noun, definitely not between an adjective and its noun) and when not to use a comma (not between adjectives in a list if their order can be changed and still seem natural), and how to avoid committing a dangling modifier. A degree in English, which this author has, doesn't automatically teach you these things; I didn't learn them when I got my English degree either. I had to pick them up for myself. I marked over 60 issues, which would land it on my "seriously needs editing" shelf except that most of them are excess hyphens or commas.

There are a few moments where my suspension of disbelief broke, such as when someone is able to play two melodies at a time on a flute (the author clearly knows nothing about music, based on the terminology she uses in that context, but it doesn't take much knowledge to know that flutes only play one note at a time - and no, if you don't lampshade it and make it clear that it's magic allowing this, I'm not going to assume that's the explanation). My biggest question needs spoiler tags: (view spoiler)

So there's plenty to criticize here at one level. On the other hand, as I said, the suspense was well done; I certainly found the various challenges that the protagonist and her companions faced exciting. However, because (by the nature of her unfamiliarity with the world) we never got to know in advance what was and wasn't possible with magic and the various artefacts, the magic didn't conform to Sanderson's Laws, and therefore was slightly disappointing as a method of resolving problems, since any problem could potentially be resolved with a magic solution we didn't previously know about. The positive in this context was that these resolutions came with a cost to the protagonist, and she had to be smart and loyal and determined to achieve them, so this is one of those books that, while it has a number of flaws in concept and mechanics, nevertheless works well in terms of its emotional throughline. I've put books like that on my Best of the Year list before, and this one joins them - firmly in the Bronze tier, but that's still a recommendation, even if it comes with a big asterisk.

It didn't quite win me over to the point that I'll read the series, though. There are enough flaws, and it's similar enough to other books, that this is where I'll stop.

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Thursday 22 June 2023

Review: The Wheels of Chance: A Bicycling Idyll

The Wheels of Chance: A Bicycling Idyll The Wheels of Chance: A Bicycling Idyll by H.G. Wells
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

An early Wells (1894), not SF but comedy. I picked it up because I was reading the Wikipedia article on Three Men in a Boat , which I read immediately prior, and it mentioned that this book was partly inspired by that book. Rather than a boat trip by three friends, this is a cycling trip by one man, Mr. Hoopdriver, a lowly draper's assistant, at the time when the affordable bicycle has newly granted geographical mobility to the common people, and before cars join bicycles on the roads.

What I found fascinating about it was how Wells seemed to write himself into it both as the hero and the villain. He had been an uneducated draper's assistant like Mr. Hoopdriver, but by a combination of hard work and seizing his opportunities had gained some education and become a teacher. He then, around the time this book was written, fell in love with one of his students, left his wife and lived with, and later married, this woman five years his junior. (He subsequently had many affairs while married to her.)

In this book, the hero is Hoopdriver, who has an innocent morality and the remnants of a religious upbringing, and helps a young woman disentangle herself from the clutches of the villain - an educated man in something of a mentor relationship with her, twice her age, who is married but wants to seduce her, having convinced her that she should leave her despised stepmother in his company. (They are also on bicycles, going in the same direction as Hoopdriver, and he keeps encountering them and gradually comes to understand the situation, eventually intervening.)

While the parallels aren't exact - the age gap is much greater in the novel, and the woman is unwilling, apparently unlike Wells' second wife - it does feel to me as if, perhaps, Wells was showing some regret for his actions in the light of what his younger self would have thought of them.

The other theme that interested me in the book centers around how the zeitgeist, or things we've read and imagined, can take the place of original thought. At the beginning, when we see Hoopdriver at work in the draper's shop, Wells points out how the phrases he uses to the customers are as automatic as the way he rolls up the cloth while thinking of something else. He has been reduced to a machine, and ironically it's a machine - his bicycle - that frees him and enables him to find self-determination and choices. He endures what would otherwise be an unendurable existence by fantasizing, using books he's read - mostly popular adventure novels - to cast himself as a hero, while living a completely mundane and unremarkable life, like a milder version of the later comic writer James Thurber's Walter Mitty. But when he does get the opportunity to act, this fantasizing has functioned as a kind of mental practice for being brave, decisive, and a "gentleman" - in his actions if not in his social position. Not only does he intervene to protect the Young Lady in Grey, but he (eventually) tells her the truth about who he is, something he finds much harder, but which he is compelled to do by his essential honesty and his regard for her.

The other side of the coin is seen in Jessie, the young woman, and her would-be seducer Bechamel. The narrator remarks of them that they are essentially hollow people with a shell formed out of the zeitgeist. Jessie, in particular, has (against her stepmother's wishes and without her knowledge) read her stepmother's novels, which are considered somewhat risque, though her stepmother is in fact entirely conventional apart from her literary affectations; this leads Jessie to a naïve determination to Live Her Own Life, something which was barely dawning as a possibility for women at the time and, as Jessie eventually realizes, required them to have money to start with. Here's the relevant passage:

"And when we open the heads of these two young people, we find, not a straightforward motive on the surface anywhere; we find, indeed, not a soul so much as an oversoul, a zeitgeist, a congestion of acquired ideas, a highway's feast of fine, confused thinking. The girl is resolute to Live Her Own Life, a phrase you may have heard before, and the man has a pretty perverted ambition to be a cynical artistic person of the very calmest description. He is hoping for the awakening of Passion in her, among other things. He knows Passion ought to awaken, from the text-books he has studied. He knows she admires his genius, but he is unaware that she does not admire his head. He is quite a distinguished art critic in London, and he met her at that celebrated lady novelist's, her stepmother, and here you have them well embarked upon the Adventure. Both are in the first stage of repentance, which consists, as you have probably found for yourself, in setting your teeth hard and saying 'I WILL go on.'"

Part of what makes this a comedy, and much of what makes it enjoyable to me, is that although the narrator makes it clear that the characters are practicing a great deal of self-deceit and taking most or all of their ideas unexamined from other people, he also normalizes this as something that everyone does in order to deal with life. He treats mundane, unremarkable, forgettable Mr. Hoopdriver sympathetically; Hoopdriver may have been made into a machine by society, but the narrator deals with him as a human being with worth and dignity, despite his mild delusions of self-importance. He's an everyman hero, which is a kind of hero I particularly enjoy (I'm so sick of Chosen Ones). In the final chapter, Wells makes it explicit that making such a man sympathetic is his goal:

"But if you see how a mere counter-jumper, a cad on castors, and a fool to boot, may come to feel the little insufficiencies of life, and if he has to any extent won your sympathies, my end is attained."

The book isn't without its minor flaws. There are a few inconsistencies in the ages of the characters, for example. Chapter XV describes Jessie as a girl of 18, but everywhere else in the book says she's 17; it also describes Bechamel as 33 or 34, but Jessie says 35 elsewhere, and he doesn't contradict her. Jessie's stepmother is described as only 10 years older than Jessie, but then a couple of pages later her age is given as 32, which is 15 years older. Hoopdriver's age is consistently given as 23. (Wells was 28 in 1894, for context.) The Project Gutenberg edition also contains some coordinate commas that don't belong (probably original) and some obvious uncorrected scan errors that I will pass on to them for correction.

These small issues are thoroughly outweighed by the masterful way in which Wells takes a man who seems to have no potential as a hero whatsoever and shows how, by his basic decency and honesty, he becomes one, if only in a small way. As in most comedies, it's entirely populated by foolish characters. Hoopdriver is a self-deceiving fool who thinks others think more of him than they do; Jessie is a naïve fool who has no idea how the world works and doesn't even realize that; Bechamel is an egotistical fool who thinks his lust for Jessie is love, and that it justifies forcing himself on her; the stepmother is a hypocritical fool who writes novels in which women are unconventional while being thoroughly conventional herself; her male friends are an officious fool, a pompous fool, and a callow fool; the clergyman they recruit along the way is a narrow-minded fool. But as with, say, Joseph Andrews , the portrayal of their foolishness is often not cutting and condemning, but affectionate and understanding, especially when it comes to Hoopdriver (and, to a lesser extent, Jessie). It's not a dark comedy; although, for reasons of realism, the ending isn't the traditional lovers-united comedy ending, it holds out a good deal of hope. And while it's class-conscious in the way that only an English novel can be, and especially an English novel written by a Cockney man born to an unsuccessful shopkeeper who has nevertheless managed to gain an education, by that same token it's hopeful about social mobility, while never denying the power and weight of the class system. As Wells' career went on, he became more cynical and strident about these issues, but here he is neither of those things, gently but firmly bringing class into prominence as a theme of the novel without overstressing it or allowing it to push the characters out of the foreground.

Structurally, it's in some ways a picaresque, again like Joseph Andrews , one of those English comic novels that wanders around a good deal rather than having a particularly strong plot structure, and what structure it has is partly provided by the physical journey (as with its model, Three Men in a Boat ). But there is also a strong character arc for Hoopdriver, which follows his relationship with Jessie, from not knowing she exists at the beginning through spotting her at a distance to meeting her, rescuing her, travelling with her and getting to know her, and separating from her at last, but with some promise of eventually reuniting, when they will have become different people with different options available to them.

I went into it with some trepidation, having not always enjoyed Wells' other novels, mainly because they're not like this one. But in the end, it turned out to be one of the best books I've read this year.

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Monday 19 June 2023

Review: Three Men in a Boat

Three Men in a Boat Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

On reread, this is funnier than I remember. Rather like Tristram Shandy, J. (as Jerome's friends call him in this book) is given to wandering off into a digression and forgetting what he was doing. His digressions are sometimes lyrical rhapsodies on the beauties, natural and constructed, to be seen along the River Thames, but also often anecdotes which feel like real life, just a little bit exaggerated and heightened for absurd comic effect.

That's pretty much how the whole book works, in fact. J. and his two friends, George and "Harris" (actually Hentschel), did often take boating trips on the Thames, but this specific one is fictional, as is the dog of which the title parenthetically says nothing. So the encounter in Connie Willis's To Say Nothing of the Dog , in which, if I remember rightly, the dog Montmorency was spotted along with the three friends, could not actually have happened, slightly to my disappointment. It was written shortly after his honeymoon trip on the river, but drawing on memories of trips with his friends.

It started out as a travel guide, and still has that as its spine and organizing principle, but the comic novel took over and led to its success; it's now been in print continuously for a hundred and thirty years, and sold over a million copies in the first 20 years.

I think the reason it succeeded, and continues to succeed, is that it's relatable. Here are three young men, with some education but not socially elevated, financially successful (so far; all of them were later) or established in their careers. They all deride each other as lazy idiots, but nevertheless are clearly solid friends, undertaking a trip for which they've prepared poorly and encountering difficulties that they're ill-equipped for, yet somehow winning through, discomforted but not truly harmed. It's an everyman's adventure, which got it a lot of snobbish criticism at the time it was published, but also made it immensely popular. This was a time when such leisure was first coming into the reach of the common man, which probably accounts for a lot of the pushback.

The style of the humour reminds me not only of Tristram Shandy but of the American humourist Patrick F. McManus, and his accounts of his youthful wilderness adventures with his buddy Retch Sweeney and the old mountain man Rancid Crabtree. It has the same kind of self-deprecating exaggeration, like a fish story directed against yourself.

The ending feels a touch abrupt; the weather turns bad, and rather than continue on the river, the friends abandon their trip and take a train back to London and its comforts. But this, too, somehow fits with the overall feel. This is a safe adventure, not into the true wilds but in civilized places, just with a bit of discomfort self-imposed by choosing to camp out (and by a limited budget and a lack of practical skills). It's what's now referred to as "cozy"; low stakes, firm friendships (under the mutual insults), and a throughline that isn't really a plot, but is provided, in this case, by the travel itinerary.

It inspired many other comic novels, and I'm reading one next, H.G. Wells' The Wheels of Chance: A Bicycling Idyll .

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Monday 12 June 2023

Review: Watching: Volume 1, The Garden Museum Heist

Watching: Volume 1, The Garden Museum Heist Watching: Volume 1, The Garden Museum Heist by Jeffrey Jay Levin
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Contrary to some other reviews, I found it quite easy to put down and not pick up again. The story itself had promise and originality - a man suddenly becomes able to see through time, and witnesses details of a connected series of past crimes - but the execution fell short for me. Also, as a matter of personal taste, it was more violent than I was prepared for. When I see "heist" I think "clever theft," not "multiple gang murders, including innocent bystanders".

The prose is often not smooth, and mundane details are overexplained.

There are sections in present tense, set in the past, and sections in past tense, set in the present; this isn't as confusing as it sounds, and is a good choice by the author, because the present-tense sections, representing the viewpoint character having an intense experience of viewing another time, give a greater sense of immediacy and immersion. However, in the pre-publication version I received via Netgalley for review, the author frequently - and I mean frequently - messes up the tense, dropping into past tense in the present-tense sections and vice versa. Maybe relics of a revision? In any case, an extremely basic thing to get wrong, and I found it constantly distracting.

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Review: Inker and Crown

Inker and Crown Inker and Crown by Megan O'Russell
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The main problem with this one for me is that it was a YA dystopian more or less by stealth - at least, I didn't realize until quite late that it was one - and I don't like YA dystopian (or any other kind of dystopian, for that matter).

The secondary problem was that the author doesn't know when not to use a coordinate comma, has a smaller vocabulary than she thinks she does, and needs to work a little more on apostrophe placement, dialog punctuation, and making sure all the words get into the sentence. At 86% of the way through, which is where I stopped reading, I'd marked over 40 issues, about twice as many as average - none of them individually that bad, but some of them frequent.

I'm not even counting the lack of an apostrophe in the names of the guilds, which is slightly defensible (though I think it's not the best option) and at least was done consistently. It's "Scribes Guild" (instead of "Scribes' Guild") throughout.

The guilds, I eventually realized, were YA-dystopian factions, though between them the main characters belong to more than half of the guilds, and they are more allied than they are at odds. They're a kind of family, being the daughter, wards, and apprentices of the leader of the Mapmakers' Guild (this is my review, so I'm putting in the apostrophe). Four of them form two couples: one couple can't marry because she's a Mapmaker, and female mapmakers have to give up their position in the Guild if they marry, in order to stay at home and raise children; the female member of the other couple, the Lord Mapmaker's daughter, won't marry her love because he's also a mapmaker, and male mapmakers are away a lot, and she saw how that was for her mother, so rather than have him some of the time she'll cut off her nose to spite her face.

The point at which I stopped reading was where this particular character (the daughter) made another obviously bad choice that was clearly there to ramp up the drama, like a lot of other choices and situations in the book. The dystopian aspect is that the Guilds run their members' lives in a way that doesn't always leave room for human values (and is sexist, as per my previous paragraph), and also that they oppress the people (something we were told a lot more often than we were shown, though the viewpoints did follow the Guilded young people mainly, and they wouldn't necessarily see it first-hand), and also that the Sorcerers' Guild is trying to control all the others and is difficult to stop, because magic.

The main characters are part of a conspiracy within the Guilds to locate magic not under the control of the Sorcerers, and presumably do something with it to take them down a peg or even overthrow them, though that last part was never articulated as far as I read; they mostly seem to be locating magic in order to know where it is, even though that's very forbidden and would get them killed if anyone found out.

Alongside all of this, there's a populist figure who is rousing the rabble to revolution against the oppressive Guilds, and the one viewpoint character who's not a member of the core family is both resisting his sexual advances (dangerous, because populist leader), in part because she realizes that the common people will see more harm than good as a result of his revolt, and is also working with the Head Scribe, one of the family, which also puts her in more danger from the anti-Guild faction.

"Working with" in this case means: supplying ink (she's the Inker of the title) and flirting with, with extreme prejudice (she keeps taking him away from his work to help her get ink ingredients, which in one case involves them swimming naked together to get into a particular place behind a waterfall), even though she apparently has no intention of becoming his lover any more than the populist leader's. She's quite consciously manipulating him, in other words, exercising what power she has in a situation where she has very little; she can't stave off the coming revolt or even really protect herself. But she could certainly flirt with danger, and with the scribe, a lot less than she does, another set of choices that seem to exist mainly to amp up the drama and angst.

In the end, that was what drove me away from the book: drama and angst pushed to their maximum for their own sake by people making obviously bad choices in a situation clearly set up to be a powder keg. A lot of readers will love exactly that about it, but it isn't to my taste.

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Friday 9 June 2023

Review: An Experiment in Gyro-Hats

An Experiment in Gyro-Hats An Experiment in Gyro-Hats by Ellis Parker Butler
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A mildly amusing short tale with a speculative element, though it's there to provide comedy with its absurdity, not to be an actual speculation. A lot of the humour consists in "look at how seriously this small-minded middle-class tradesman takes himself," which is never a favourite direction for me.

The narrator is a hatter, whose daughter has fallen in love with a man who reels and staggers when he walks. They at first assume he's a drinker, even though he's never been seen to take a drink, but the hatter decides to invent a Gyro-Hat to help him walk straight anyway. It turns out that his staggering is because, as a child, he got caught on a rotating turntable that his father had invented to turn balky mules around and spun on it for hours at high speed before he was rescued; the Gyro-Hat, by going wrong, spins him in the opposite direction and "unwinds" him, curing him completely. Along the way, the hatter, testing the hat, drinks for the first time, gets roaring drunk, and wanders up a set of iron railings in his Gyro-Hat, perfectly stable.

It's silly and absurd and, as I say, mildly amusing.

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Tuesday 6 June 2023

Review: Heritage of Power

Heritage of Power Heritage of Power by Lindsay Buroker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read the first in this series when it came out in 2017, and enjoyed it enough that I noted in my review that I'd want to read the rest. But when I re-read it in this boxed set, I remembered hardly anything, so it clearly didn't have a big impact on me.

Lindsay Buroker writes books that are entertaining, full of fun banter and well-described adventurous moments, but are also lightweight and largely interchangeable. Usually, they're excellently edited, but these ones had a few scattered glitches: typos, including a few words missing from sentences; vocabulary errors ("incredulous" for "incredible," "liberations" for "liberties" and "hurling" for "hurtling"); a comma splice; the increasingly common "may" instead of "might" in past tense narration; a couple of missing quotation marks. It's still a great deal better than average (fewer than 10 errors per book), but below the standard I've come to expect from this author.

There are also a few inconsistencies or continuity errors. For example, in the first book, the viewpoint characters suspect another character of having sorcerous abilities because he can see in the dark, but by Book 3 he's stubbing his toe in the dark because he specifically does not have that ability. A journal is put into a pocket, that set of clothes is subsequently soaked through, and it appears to have no effect on the legibility of the journal later on. In the fifth book, the female lead is happy that her love interest has finally said he loves her for the first time - but it isn't for the first time, he said it in the fourth book.

Worse than that, there's an outright deus ex machina at a tense moment in the fourth book, which is the kind of cheat I don't expect from this author.

Still, is it entertaining? Absolutely. The snarky banter, the urgent quests with personal stakes, the fun magical technology, the explosions, the desperate fights, the slow-burn romance between people who feel like they don't fit in - all of these elements are what I come to a Buroker book expecting, and here they are. I've described her books as the Subway of fast-food fiction, and I stand by it. You know what you'll get, it will be good but not truly excellent, you'll probably be glad you bought it and go away reasonably satisfied, and the next one will be very much the same. This one has a few minor flaws which weren't fatal to my enjoyment, but did almost drop it out of contention for my Best of the Year list. It enters at the Bronze tier, just barely, because despite everything it is better than the average light fantasy. The world doesn't feel like it's made out of scenery flats, the characters grow and change at least a little, and overall it's a fun ride.

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