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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