Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Review: Starlight's Children

Starlight's Children Starlight's Children by Darian Smith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'll just say starting out: I usually don't find that books as essentially good-hearted as this one have such a high body count. But it definitely is noblebright, not grimdark, despite that, and well written to boot.

I very much enjoyed the first book in the series, which introduced the mashup of police procedural, secondary-world fantasy, and forensic thriller that continues in this one. The lead investigator, a former soldier who's trained as a physician in part as a way of atoning for the lives he took in the war, is intelligent, determined, and brave, and ably supported by a cast of secondary characters who manage to be morally complicated while still, mostly, people you can cheer for. Nobody is lily-white, but unlike in a grimdark fantasy, they haven't given up on becoming better people, or lost hope that they can do what's right.

The dialog and, to be honest, many of the social attitudes are modern rather than of the technological and social period of the setting, but that would be almost my only criticism. This is a good concept, well executed.

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Wednesday, 11 October 2017

Review: First Year

First Year First Year by Rachel E. Carter
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I hovered between three and four stars for this one. The premise - Hogwarts as merciless boot camp - ended up wearing a little thin. In a way, too, it was dropped right at the end, in what I felt was a bit of a gift to the heroine - not undeserved or unexpected, and yet it felt disappointing to me - a cheat.

The fact that the antagonist/love interest had a name that began with D and a father named Lucius made me suspect that the book began life as Harry Potter fanfiction; I may be wrong. It isn't very Potteresque, in the event, apart from the setting in a magic school. There's no whimsy or fun here, and it needed some.

The other thing it needed was a really good professional edit. The author credits an editor and five or six "proofers" in the acknowledgements, but there are still commas placed where no comma should ever, ever be, and repeated basic homonym errors like poured/pored, hoard/horde, and worst of all, shown/shone. The odd and awkward phrasings of many sentences had me wondering sometimes if the author spoke English as a first language.

Those frequent language errors were what, for me, tipped it over into three-star territory, along with the humourless tone and the frantically signalled setup for horrible tragedy later in the series. There wasn't a lot to counterbalance those issues, either; the setting and characters were pretty much by the numbers.

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Sunday, 1 October 2017

Review: Starlings

Starlings Starlings by Jo Walton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

By the author's own admission, several of the "short stories" in this book are not actually stories. They're exercises in mode, or jokes, or the attempts of someone who knows how novels work but not how short stories work to write a short story.

This doesn't sound promising, but Jo Walton is such a good writer that she mostly gets away with it in any case. In fact, some of the stories have been published in prestigious publications like Strange Horizons and Subterranean. Unfairly, I occasionally thought, "I wish I had the kind of standing in the SFF community that meant I could get published in those publications by writing a story that isn't a story," but that's not the only thing that's going on. Walton is a deep thinker, a close observer, and a master of language, and all these things shine through, even when her "story" is only an exploration of a clever idea with no real beginning, middle, or (especially) end.

"Three Twilight Tales," for example, the first piece, explores a small town that has remarkable magic, but the magic is a means to look at the people and their relationships. "Jane Austen to Cassandra" takes the idea that Jane Austen's letters to her friend and correspondent Cassandra go astray and reach Cassandra's original namesake, the prophetess who nobody believed. And are answered. "Unreliable Witness" is from the POV of an elderly woman with dementia who may or may not have encountered aliens. "On the Wall" is, as the author says, the beginning of a novel, a very different version of Snow White, from the perspective of the mirror, but because we know the original story we don't need the rest. This kind of implied narrative is something I'm interested in, taking advantage of the familiar tales to create resonance and tell a minimal story where the reader fills in what's missing.

"The Panda Coin" is SF, following a coin through a number of hands in a somewhat dystopic space station. "Remember the Allosaur" is a joke, but a beautifully written one. "Sleeper" I think I've read before somewhere (probably, since it was published there, or in one of their collections); it's about a Russian sleeper agent in late-20th-century Britain whose consciousness is simulated by a researcher in a dystopian future. Like most of the others, it doesn't have an ending so much as imply a continuation.

"Relentlessly Mundane" is a consideration of the question "what do the kids do after they come back from the portal fantasy world and grow up?" It's an idea that's been tackled at greater length since by Seanan McGuire, but this is a good treatment.

"Escape to Other Worlds with Science Fiction" is a series of vignettes and pseudo-documents that build up a picture of an American dystopia (there's a bit of a theme going with the SF in this volume), in the old alternate-history-where-the-Nazis-won-WWII genre. Not as original an idea as some of the others, but well done.

"Joyful and Triumphant" is a meditation on the idea that each planet gets an Incarnation, in the "character explains as if to n00bs" mode. It's not a mode I think much of, and this is, for me, one of the weaker stories, though it's an interesting idea. Later in the volume, "What Would Sam Spade Do?" posits a world with multiple clones of Jesus, who have become a kind of ethnicity, and "What Joseph Felt" explores St Joseph's feelings around the Incarnation. "Out of It" is based on the Faust legend, so Christian mythology (if I can use the term) gets thoroughly inspected.

"Turnover" is a what-if-the-later-generations-in-the-generation-ship-don't-want-to-go-to-the-new-planet story. As it happens, I read a very similar story by Ursula Le Guin almost immediately afterwards ("Paradises Lost"), and comparing anyone else's story to a Le Guin is usually unfair to the other writer, but this one stands up reasonably well. The sense of place is well handled, in particular, and though it's another story with an "ending" that's more of an implication of future events to come, so is Le Guin's.

I won't mention all of the stories, just a couple more. "A Burden Shared" is set in a world where people can (through handwaved technology) shoulder one another's pain, featuring the mother of a woman with a chronic illness as the main character. As someone who lives with a person with a chronic illness, it rang true to me, and the theme of how caregivers (especially mothers) can neglect their own needs is an important one.

The other story, which is actually a play, is "Three Shouts on a Hill," an odd mishmash of Irish legend with bits and pieces from other times and places that's as much a meta-meditation on story as it is anything else.

Overall, then, this collection is proof that, if you're a good enough writer, you can write a successful piece of short fiction in a lot of different ways. Not all of the pieces are excellent or weighty, or even original, but those that are lift the average considerably.

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Monday, 18 September 2017

Review: The Censor's Hand

The Censor's Hand The Censor's Hand by A.M. Steiner
My rating: 0 of 5 stars

I stopped reading this twice.

The first time, at maybe 15%, I went off and read several other books. I didn't feel much desire to go back to it, but I wasn't hating it, so I gave it another go. In part, I wanted to figure out why it was that I didn't care about any of the characters, and give the author a chance to change that.

I got to 64% before I realised why it was that I didn't care, and at that point I stopped.

The narrative follows three loosely connected main characters. One is in financial trouble and about to lose the family business, which would mean his ill mother, his wife, and their baby would have no means of support. You'd think this would make me care about him, but he's so hapless and hopeless, and makes such bad decisions, that I never did. His family seems to be more of a constraint on his actions than people that he cares deeply about.

The second is the first character's brother. He's a competent fighter, and ambitious to clean up their old neighbourhood by becoming a Censor, a kind of lawman. Again, a laudable goal, and you'd think I'd care, but he fumbles around, not showing a lot of focus or competence, serving an obviously heartless organization which considers him a tool, and not a particularly valuable one.

The third character is a woman student - the first woman student - at a magical college, at which the second character is also a student as part of an undercover investigation. They become involved. So why didn't I care about a woman who's making her way in a man's world by being better than the male students? Normally I'd love that story, but this character is so nakedly ambitious, and so uncaring about anyone other than herself, that I had no sympathy for her goals.

And that was the overall problem, I think. Nobody combined competence with idealism; everyone was missing one or the other, and nobody had any noticeable compassion or empathy. Faced with a cast of characters who didn't much care about each other, I didn't care about them either, and stopped reading with no regrets.

I received a review copy via Netgalley.

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Review: Abounding Might

Abounding Might Abounding Might by Melissa McShane
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Melissa McShane crashes the superhero genre into Regency romance, by way of Napoleonic military adventure. The effect is... pleasing.

In part, it's pleasing because she has a sure hand on the wheel when it comes both to basic storytelling and the mechanics of grammar, punctuation, and word choice. There was nothing to distract or detract from my enjoyment of the characters, the plot, and the setting, and those elements were very well handled.

I much enjoyed the first in this series, Burning Bright, with a heroine who could control fire battling pirates in the early-19th-century Caribbean, and this volume is as good or better. Set in the British-dominated India of the East India Company during the Regency, it follows Lady Daphne, a teleporter ("Bounder") who is determined not to let her small stature or feminine nature prevent her from becoming famous for her skill. She lifts weights, since, to transport other people, she has to pick them up; and she chafes against, and often effectively circumvents, the restrictions imposed on her as a woman.

She does, at one point, make a less-than-sensible decision which leads to bad consequences, but it's a completely believable one (not just shoehorned in against character in order to complicate the plot), and she deals with the consequences with courage and determination. She's principled, intelligent, and in general exactly the kind of character I enjoy reading about. Her love interest, while perhaps a touch bland compared with her (since we're in her viewpoint throughout, we don't really get to see his inner life), is worthy and capable.

I wasn't sure I quite understood how the minor antagonist was disturbing the hero, though I do have a theory, which Daphne would realistically have been too naive to think of. Apart from that, everything was clear, and I didn't spot any plot holes or obvious historical gaffes.

A very sound effort, and I believe I'll pick up Book 2 and watch out for Book 4, if there is one. I received both Book 1 and Book 3 via Netgalley for purposes of review.

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Sunday, 3 September 2017

Review: Masked

Masked Masked by J.D. Wright
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I've been in the mood for superhero fiction lately, but it's hard to find good stuff. Most of it is poorly edited and not especially well executed, and I'm afraid this one isn't an exception.

At first it got the Randy Jackson reaction: It was just OK for me, you know, dogg? I could have overlooked most of the issues - even titanium not being a good conductor of electrical blasts, although the same electrical blasts were destroying creatures made of rock, and even the gradual drift from third person limited into more and more headhopping - but what dropped it down to three stars was the implausible stupidity of the characters.

So let's say you have important information about a wanted supervillain - who he is, that he's even still alive, that kind of thing. And let's say that this supervillain, if not stopped, is going to kill more people, like he already has several times. And let's say that you have contact with a highly effective organisation that has much better resources than you do, many trained agents with lots of experience, and you're a group of late-teenage supers just starting out. And you have no reason to expect that there will be any negative consequences to telling this organisation about this villain, who is, again, killing people and needs to be stopped.

What do you do? Well, of course you agree not to tell them, and to go after him yourselves, and none of you even questions that this is the right thing to do in the circumstances.

Nope, sorry. Blatant stupidity in the service of setting up a sequel gets your sequel left unread.

Apart from that, it was, as I say, OK. A bit more detail about the teenage sex than was needed, maybe, but generally average. There were two black characters, both of whom were tech wizards, which seems to often be the lot of black supers (think John Stewart, John Henry Irons, Cyborg and his father...). It's interesting how this trope, which theoretically is about black people being intelligent, in practice often works out as giving them a subsidiary, supporting role in which they're not expected to protagonise or to need a character arc (which is the case here).

Maybe that's improved upon in the next book. I'll never know, because that one moment of supreme stupidity put me off reading it.

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Monday, 7 August 2017

Review: The Thorn of Dentonhill

The Thorn of Dentonhill The Thorn of Dentonhill by Marshall Ryan Maresca
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

OK, fantasy authors, listen up. This is simple, but I see a lot of you getting it wrong - including this author.

The phases of the moon are caused by the angle between the moon and the sun.

This means that, if two moons are in the same part of the sky, they cannot be in different phases.

It's not even basic astronomy; it's basic geometry.

OK, with that out of the way: apart from the moon-phase error and the frequent absence of the past perfect tense (plus the usual number of minor typos and homonym errors), this was good. No better than plenty of much cheaper indie books, so I'm glad I waited until Penguin discounted it; but good, nevertheless.

A superherolike vigilante mage in a sword-and-sorcery setting, seeking revenge on a drug lord for what was done to his parents? Yes, please.

The protagonist is getting by on not enough sleep, getting beaten up and injured, overtaxing his magical strength, and he keeps promising himself and his concerned friends that he'll definitely rest up and heal, that he won't go out again the next night - and then something happens to raise the stakes, and his principles won't let him stand by, and he gets beaten up again and barely wins again and staggers back covered in blood, to vow that this time he'll look after himself...

It's a good way of maintaining tension, and setting it up so that the lone vigilante needs the help of those who care about him to triumph against the increasingly scary odds with higher and higher stakes. Good storytelling, in other words. Along the way, the secondary characters are developed and gain depth and individuality, as well as having their own character arcs.

There's only one female character, and she's a bit under-utilised, but not weak; though she does need rescuing, she also shows competence and ability in rescuing another character.

The Batman parallels are strong, but not excessive. Overall, solid work.

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