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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Saturday, 5 August 2017

Review: Necrospect: Chronicles of the Wizard-Detective

Necrospect: Chronicles of the Wizard-Detective Necrospect: Chronicles of the Wizard-Detective by J.B. Markes
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Promising, with some impressive twists. The idea of a necromancer detective is good, and the characters were well developed, though the viewpoint character, to me, seemed insufficiently motivated for the sacrifices she made.

It does read as if the author's first language is not English; there are quite a few muddled idioms, plus the occasional incorrectly punctuated bit of dialog and a few missing words. I thought that referring to "the wizarding world" was a mistake; it immediately made me think of Harry Potter, and when you're setting a book in a magic academy, you should probably try not to evoke that comparison (particularly since there's not a lot of resemblance).

I did enjoy it, though, and I'd read another.

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Review: Sensation

Sensation Sensation by Kevin Hardman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a good piece of YA superhero fiction. The moral lines are clear, which personally I like, and the main character is on the right side of them - though he's justifiably angry, and messes up believably in the way that inexperienced young people do.

He's overpowered. I prefer my heroes to be underpowered rather than overpowered, from a bias towards underdogs, but it is justified by the story that the author is telling, and the author does, at one point (albeit briefly), set it up so that the protagonist loses each power as he uses it. He has so many that it almost doesn't matter, and when it's crucial to the plot he doesn't lose one, but at least the attempt was made.

A couple of dangling modifiers, a few homonym errors, "alright" instead of "all right", and the inexcusable use of multiple question marks and exclamation marks (together) keep it off the "well-edited" shelf, but it's pretty clean apart from that.

I would have bought the next one, except that the subsequent books are all priced at $5.99. While it's good, it's not twice as good as plenty of books I can get for half that price, so I'll read those instead.

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Review: The Watchmaker of Filigree Street

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I'd vaguely heard good things about this book, and bought it when it came up on sale.

I ended up being disappointed because it didn't go in the direction I was expecting, in terms of the relationship between the characters, and even more because I ended up thoroughly disliking the main female character. Not just for her selfishness, but for her ill-conceived and irresponsible actions, and her attitude to the other main characters.

Now, partly this is a matter of taste in types of story, and has nothing to do with quality. But on the question of quality, there are quite a few accidentally omitted words; "harrow" as a mistake for "furrow"; a confusion between baron and baronet (which are completely different); and a safety catch on a revolver. It's not terrible, but it needs more polish.

Everyone - the Japanese Buddhist, the well-brought-up young lady, everyone - has only one swear: "Christ". This struck me as both mildly offensive and unlikely.

I won't be looking for more books by this author.

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Review: The Uploaded

The Uploaded The Uploaded by Ferrett Steinmetz
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I don't read dystopian, as a rule, and it's a pretty firm rule. Nor do I generally like books with a high body count. But by the time I discovered that this book is both of those things, I'd been charmed by the voice of its viewpoint character. I finished it and even enjoyed it, despite the fact that it's not the sort of thing I usually like.

It's told from the flipside of the "Rapture of the Nerds," the technological advance that enables personalities to be uploaded. The conscious dead outnumber the living, who are their miserable slaves, maintaining the servers and trying to be the kind of people the dead will eventually vote into the paradisal afterlife - or, as it's known, the Upterlife. Most people's greatest ambition is to be dead; culture consists of an endless series of reboots of franchises that were popular when the oldest dead were alive, and anything creative is in the realm of the dead. In self-defence, the dead have forbidden the living from learning to program. The most excruciating suffering of the living is dismissed with the argument that they'll get over the trauma in two or three hundred years.

The main character is an orphan (thanks to a mutated plague), whose parents are so busy on their World of Warcraft-style quests in the Upterlife that they neglect him and his sister. Partly in order to protect his sister, and partly because he's just a rebellious person, he links up with a rebel underground and with Neo-Christian insurgents (who see the Upterlife as blasphemous) to take on the inventor of the Upterlife, who is permanently President of the United States.

It's over-the-top. It's funny, moving, tragic, and eventually triumphant, though at high cost for all the characters. It's cleverly and skilfully written. If I didn't dislike dystopian stories with a high body count so much, I would certainly be giving it five stars.

I received a copy from Netgalley for review.

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Review: Artemis

Artemis Artemis by Andy Weir
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I enjoyed this author's book The Martian, despite the abundance of infodumps (and the annoying habit he has of using an exclamation mark as well as a question mark in the same sentence, which, if I was his editor, I would not allow). This book has the same faults, and many more, but is lacking the main thing I liked about The Martian: a viewpoint character I could really get behind and cheer on to succeed.

Jazz, the viewpoint character in this book, is like Mark Watney in The Martian in that she's a smartass. But while Mark's emphasis is on the smart, Jazz's is definitely on the ass. She tells us three or four times that she makes poor life choices, and demonstrates that this is true even more often; she refuses to fulfil her considerable potential out of, as far as I could tell, immature rebelliousness; she's a petty crook; and her main story goal is to commit major sabotage on vital infrastructure (there is a good reason, but still), while Mark's straightforwardly laudable goal is to survive and escape against the odds.

Artemis is a kind of heist, something I normally enjoy, but for me to enjoy a heist it needs to be more clever than this and pulled off by a lovable rogue - and I just didn't find Jazz lovable. Yes, she has one area of ethical firmness (she will always deliver on a contract), and she eventually acts heroically (to fix something she has broken), but it didn't make up for the other issues with her character. Her arc is that she learns to trust and work with other people, which worked for Lego Batman, but is a bit cheesy here.

She's supposedly Saudi, by the way, but is effectively American. The moonbase is owned by the Kenyans, but is effectively American; all the domes are named after the first American astronauts to land on the moon. None of the nods to cultural diversity were quite believable to me; it all just seemed American. Not to mention that Jazz isn't entirely convincing as a woman, either. Men can write convincing female characters, and Americans can write convincing non-Americans, but it's harder than many people (including most male American writers) seem to think.

The infodumps, too, as well as being annoying in themselves, are sometimes too close to breaking the fourth wall, in that Jazz thinks to explain things that a reader of today would find remarkable but she would not - for example, the lack of a drinking age on the moon. And then there are the ones that are just unnecessarily detailed. "How much do you know about aluminum?" says a character. To myself, I mutter, "As much as I want to. Less than I'm about to."

After all of the dull expository lumps of Space! Science!, the McGuffin seemed to me, as a layperson, to break or at least unconvincingly bend the laws of physics with regard to transmission of light through a non-vacuum. And while there are references to the original American moon landings being about a century before, which places us at least in the 2060s, the technology isn't (apart from the unconvincing McGuffin) anything that we couldn't build today; nothing really seems to have advanced, and the world hasn't changed a great deal.

What really sunk the story for me, though, was the ending. I'm going to have to use spoiler tags here to talk about it in detail.

(view spoiler)

So the author writes himself into a scenario where, by all logic, the main character would be in a near-fatal amount of trouble, and gets her off by fudging severely and, to me, unconvincingly.

Overall, I thought this book caught fire on the launchpad. It didn't succeed in terms of craft, character, plot, or setting. I give it three stars only because it's amusing in places, and occasionally clever.

I received a copy from Netgalley for review.

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Saturday, 1 July 2017

Review: The Forgotten Beasts of Eld

The Forgotten Beasts of Eld The Forgotten Beasts of Eld by Patricia A. McKillip
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I thought I'd read this before, but I didn't remember it once I got into it, and I would have remembered a book like this. I think I'd just heard about it so often that I assumed I'd read it, particularly since I love the author's other work.

McKillip writes with a magnificent complexity and depth, in the mythopoeic style championed by Tolkien. Lest we be fooled by the commercial epic fantasy of the 1970s and 1980s into thinking that Tolkien was all about armies and orcs and a quirky mixed group on a quest, this book reminds us that there was another, deeper layer to his work, which few subsequent authors have the skills to emulate. It's poetic, without ever trying too hard for beauty for its own sake; it's mythic, while also being anchored in the reality of human psychology; it's epic, without depicting a single battle on stage (though a battle forms an important part of the backstory).

Love, revenge, betrayal and jealousy weave powerfully through the plot, as do wisdom and self-understanding. (view spoiler)

The central characters are magnificent, grand, and wholehearted. The setting is vivid, rich, and magical. The beasts of the title are worthy to stand beside the great dragons, lions, cats, swans, and boars of myth and legend.

A couple of quotations, to give you the flavour:

"My heart is in your heart. I gave it to you with my name that night and you are its guardian, to treasure it, or let it wither and die. I do not understand you. I am angry with you. I am hurt and helpless, but nothing would fill the ache of the hollowness in me where your name would echo if I lost you."

"I have many people who know my name, but only one or two or three that know who it belongs to."

The wisdom at the heart of this book is that, in caring for others, we come to understand ourselves; and the person who comes to this insight most clearly is not the young boy, but the magically powerful middle-aged woman. It's a landmark work in the fantasy field, and I'm glad it's being reissued in ebook, and that I had the chance to read it through Netgalley for this review.

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