Thursday, 14 December 2017

Review: Wish

Wish Wish by D. L. Lewis
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The author is clearly in love with the semicolon, which is a wonderful punctuation mark. Unfortunately, almost all the cases in which she uses it should actually be commas.

The prose is otherwise competent, but stiff and formal, and the minor characters mostly consist of a single quirk - and often seem to be there only so that a more important character has someone to talk to.

The resolution seems hurried, and even lampshades the fact. It's therefore shorter than I was expecting.

It's far from being a bad book, but it has plenty of room for improvement.

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Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Review: The Continuum

The Continuum The Continuum by Wendy Nikel
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Disclaimers: Wendy Nikel and I are both members of the same writers' forum, but as far as I can remember we haven't interacted directly. I received a copy via Netgalley for review.

As I would expect, this is a well-crafted, competently-written book. Unfortunately, I felt it was lacking that extra spark that would take it from competence to excellence. The problem may have been that it was too short, with the character arcs and plot arcs resolving too quickly at the end, without enough middle in which they could be earned. Or it may have been that I somehow didn't find the characters' dilemmas visceral and compelling enough, or that the villains were a touch cartoonish, or that the relationships between characters were underdeveloped.

The time travel aspect is well handled, with a surprise ending (which could have had a bit more groundwork laid for it). However, I didn't fully believe that a man from 1912 could understand the workings of, and improve, a miniaturized electronic device, and since this was central to the plot that was a problem.

Enjoyable, and in places textbook (the escalation of the stakes, for example), but missing something vital to make it compelling for me.

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Wednesday, 6 December 2017

Review: Infomocracy

Infomocracy Infomocracy by Malka Ann Older
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I had vaguely heard good things about Infomocracy, so I waited for it to be on sale and picked it up. Frankly, I was disappointed.

For me, it combined a thing I dislike about cyberpunk (disconnected and more-or-less alienated characters) with a thing I dislike about hard SF (a story that has to fight its continual tendency to be exposition about the setting rather than a human drama). The result was a novel that, while well executed, was something I was never going to love.

I also didn't manage to fully suspend my disbelief. Firstly, we are shown a setting in which "microdemocracy" has taken hold over most of the world, and governments are elected for "centenals," units of 100,000 people - so two neighboring parts of the same city can be under completely different governments, each of which also governs people in geographically distant parts of the world. (They're referred to as "governments" rather than "parties," which I suppose is defensible, but the government that wins the most centenals also has some central pseudo-federal powers and responsibilities, and is referred to as having the "supermajority". Clearly it doesn't have an actual supermajority, though, since there are five governments in close contention for that honour, and it's mathematically impossible for five different groups to be within striking distance of a percentage significantly greater than 50% - which is what "supermajority" means in the dictionary. "Plurality" would have been a better term.)

The thing I didn't believe about microdemocracy was that it had been adopted at all - a given for the setup of the novel, which is about the third election under the microdemocracy system. I simply wasn't shown enough history to believe it, particularly since it doesn't, on the face of it, seem especially practical.

Other backstory, however, I was given in quantity. There's an inevitable amount of infodumping in a story like this, and it wasn't handled terribly, but it still clogged the action.

The main thing I didn't believe, though, was all the single people with no kids. One character has children (no partner), but the children are a lightly sketched inconvenience rather than real people. Everyone else appears to be single and childless, even the senior people.

Now, I work in tech, and my experience is that people's families are very important to them (their parents and siblings as well as their partners and children). Even if they're not important to the story, as such, they should at least seem to exist. I realise that in startup culture, there are a lot of single, disconnected people with not much going on outside work, but Information, the organisation in which most of the novel takes place, isn't a startup. It's a tech bureaucracy.

I also didn't believe the instant attraction-leading-to-relationship between two of the characters, or the way they met by chance after we'd already been following both of them separately.

I didn't believe the crisis, which brought down Information (or very specific aspects of it). It seemed technologically implausible.

And finally, I didn't believe (in light of recent elections and referenda) the ending, in which rationality carries the day. In fact, I didn't really believe that the various microdemocratic governments permitted Information to exist and to act as a combination of Google and Politifact, annotating their inaccurate claims for people.

Characters with too few dimensions and too few relationships (and the main one implausible), and some sociological and technological unlikelinesses that were inadequately sold to me, combined with too much exposition to place this at three stars for me.

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Sunday, 26 November 2017

Review: The Philosopher's Flight: A Novel

The Philosopher's Flight: A Novel The Philosopher's Flight: A Novel by Tom Miller
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was excellent, and I'm really glad I took the risk with it.

It was recommended by a fellow writer on a forum we both frequent, and when I saw it was on Netgalley I picked it up. My big concern was that the genderflip inherent in the premise - women are, for unexplained reasons, the best at magic, and a young man tries to establish himself among them during the period of the First World War - could so easily have gone terribly wrong. (I'm thinking of that awful raceflipped Pearls thing from a few years back.)

I'm relieved to report that for me - and you have to remember I'm male - it succeeded in not being horribly tone-deaf in its treatment of the genderflip. First of all, many of the female characters, including the protagonist's mother, sisters, colleagues, and friends, are the kind of pragmatic, competent women that my own mother, sisters, colleagues, and friends are. Secondly, they're not idealised; though they're fine people in all the ways that really count, they're often coarse, they make bad decisions at times, and they struggle with assorted character flaws and blind spots. Other female characters are petty, selfish, silly, shallow, manipulative, all the things that real people (of both genders) are. If you're going to portray people who are not like you, this is the way to do it: make them feel like real people.

Then the genderflip itself, the man struggling to succeed in a woman's world, is well done. I found Robert instantly relatable; he has a noble dream, to be part of the Rescue and Evacuation Corps who save wounded soldiers on the battlefield, using "sigilry" (the magic system) to fly them to safety. It looks like he can't have that dream. Even the women who support him becoming the best sigilrist he can be don't believe he can be accepted to the Corps; even his mother, his hero and inspiration, doesn't believe he should be accepted, even if he qualifies.

He'd be a distraction to the women. He wouldn't fit in. He'd be a curiosity. It would be an exercise in political point-scoring, not a merit-based appointment. He wouldn't be able to do the work as well as a woman. If he was accepted, he'd have to be called a Sigilwoman; that's the name of the rank, and you can't simultaneously ask for equal treatment and ask for special treatment, now can you? Women bully him, haze him, threaten to boycott a major sporting event if he takes part, mark him down unfairly, strip him of an honour he's won by tremendous effort. He has to be better than most women to even be considered. He has, in other words, the experience of any outsider trying to enter a social space that's traditionally been closed to people like them.

It's a story about family, and love, and friendship, and overcoming prejudice and injustice. Apart from a very early infodump, there's not a craft misstep in it; the author has both an MFA and an MD, which is an unusual combination, and draws on his knowledge of emergency medicine to make the multiple rescue scenes gripping and realistic. I loved Robert's competence in a crisis, demonstrated very early on and repeatedly after that, and so clearly learned from his mother.

Robert doesn't just have societal prejudice about gender roles to contend with, either. The Trenchers, a political/religious group opposed to sigilry of all kinds and willing to take extreme measures against those who practice it, are constant threats, with some terrifying encounters that test Robert's values and ideals severely. This, too, is established right out of the gate and persists as a strong thread throughout.

I enjoyed the epigraphs to the chapters, quotations from various invented documents which give intriguing glimpses into the characters' future and make me want to read more of their story - if I didn't already want to do so because of the excellent quality of this book. I very much do want to read more, and I will eagerly await a sequel.

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Review: The Philosopher's Flight: A Novel

The Philosopher's Flight: A Novel The Philosopher's Flight: A Novel by Tom Miller
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was excellent, and I'm really glad I took the risk with it.

It was recommended by a fellow writer on a forum we both frequent, and when I saw it was on Netgalley I picked it up. My big concern was that the genderflip inherent in the premise - women are, for unexplained reasons, the best at magic, and a young man tries to establish himself among them during the period of the First World War - could so easily have gone terribly wrong. (I'm thinking of that awful raceflipped Pearls thing from a few years back.)

I'm relieved to report that for me - and you have to remember I'm male - it succeeded in not being horribly tone-deaf in its treatment of the genderflip. First of all, many of the female characters, including the protagonist's mother, sisters, colleagues, and friends, are the kind of pragmatic, competent women that my own mother, sisters, colleagues, and friends are. Secondly, they're not idealised; though they're fine people in all the ways that really count, they're often coarse, they make bad decisions at times, and they struggle with assorted character flaws and blind spots. Other female characters are petty, selfish, silly, shallow, manipulative, all the things that real people (of both genders) are. If you're going to portray people who are not like you, this is the way to do it: make them feel like real people.

Then the genderflip itself, the man struggling to succeed in a woman's world, is well done. I found Robert instantly relatable; he has a noble dream, to be part of the Rescue and Evacuation Corps who save wounded soldiers on the battlefield, using "sigilry" (the magic system) to fly them to safety. It looks like he can't have that dream. Even the women who support him becoming the best sigilrist he can be don't believe he can be accepted to the Corps; even his mother, his hero and inspiration, doesn't believe he should be accepted, even if he qualifies.

He'd be a distraction to the women. He wouldn't fit in. He'd be a curiosity. It would be an exercise in political point-scoring, not a merit-based appointment. He wouldn't be able to do the work as well as a woman. If he was accepted, he'd have to be called a Sigilwoman; that's the name of the rank, and you can't simultaneously ask for equal treatment and ask for special treatment, now can you? Women bully him, haze him, threaten to boycott a major sporting event if he takes part, mark him down unfairly, strip him of an honour he's won by tremendous effort. He has to be better than most women to even be considered. He has, in other words, the experience of any outsider trying to enter a social space that's traditionally been closed to people like them.

It's a story about family, and love, and friendship, and overcoming prejudice and injustice. Apart from a very early infodump, there's not a craft misstep in it; the author has both an MFA and an MD, which is an unusual combination, and draws on his knowledge of emergency medicine to make the multiple rescue scenes gripping and realistic. I loved Robert's competence in a crisis, demonstrated very early on and repeatedly after that, and so clearly learned from his mother.

Robert doesn't just have societal prejudice about gender roles to contend with, either. The Trenchers, a political/religious group opposed to sigilry of all kinds and willing to take extreme measures against those who practice it, are constant threats, with some terrifying encounters that test Robert's values and ideals severely. This, too, is established right out of the gate and persists as a strong thread throughout.

I enjoyed the epigraphs to the chapters, quotations from various invented documents which give intriguing glimpses into the characters' future and make me want to read more of their story - if I didn't already want to do so because of the excellent quality of this book. I very much do want to read more, and I will eagerly await a sequel.

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Thursday, 23 November 2017

Review: The Paper Magician

The Paper Magician The Paper Magician by Charlie N. Holmberg
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Other reviewers have complained about the pacing of the central part of this book (from roughly the 40% to 80% marks), when the main character is in another character's heart, and has an Alice-in-Wonderland journey through his memories (happy and not), his hopes, and his fears.

For me, that part worked all right. The character had a clear goal (get through the heart and save her apprentice master, whose heart it is). There was a ticking clock - or rather a beating heart, which was going to stop beating if she didn't succeed. It was clear that she was going to have to go through all four chambers, meaning that there was always a sense of progress and of how far there was still to go. Her experiences in the heart were varied and, to me, interesting. It's true that she was often more an observer than a participant, but I thought the author got away with it.

What I am going to complain about is the incidental anachronisms, and, to a lesser extent, the Americanisms. I more or less expect a book by a modern American author set in historical Britain to use modern American English, not period British English; period British English is hard to do, and for most authors, better not attempted. It still jars me a little when I hit an Americanism (like a British character referring to her mother as "my mom"), but most readers aren't going to care.

What I find less forgivable are the anachronisms. The sense of time and place in a book depends on little throwaway details that aren't directly important to the plot, so if you are trying to create such a sense of time and place, you need to get them right. You need to not have a tire swing in 1870s England, in other words; or a bistro in London around the turn of the 20th century (since bistros originated in 1920s Paris); or a young woman living with a not-very-much-older man to whom she isn't married or related, with nobody else in the house, and it not causing a scandal; or a mixed-gender school in 1890s England, where the teachers merely swat a boy with a ruler in passing for kissing his girlfriend in the hallway. Or (and American authors almost never get this right, because in America the continued existence of class is covered over by a fiction of equality) a lack of respectful address between people of different social status.

Yes, this is clearly an alternative history, but if anything that means that incidental details are even more important to anchor the sense of time and place. If they don't matter to the plot, don't get them obviously wrong, is my view, or your setting will seem bland, undeveloped, and poorly thought through.

Apart from those annoyances, I found this an entertaining book. Its greatest strength is the magic system, which is original and varied, though it wouldn't bear close logical scrutiny; it's more on the symbolic than the literal side, which is fine if that's what you're going for. Characterization is a mixed bag; because we get shown a lot of the magician's life, but mainly told about the main character's, he seems a lot more developed than she does, and they are the only developed characters (apart from the rather cartoonish villain). The editing is good, as I've come to expect from Amazon Publishing, with few and minor glitches.

The question that always comes up at the end of a mixed review like this is "Would I read another in the series?" I'm honestly not sure. If the author had given me more confidence in his historical knowledge and commitment to getting the small details right, or if I'd liked the main character more, then probably, but as it stands, perhaps I would and perhaps I wouldn't. I've read a lot of worse first novels, and it does show some promise. In the right mood, I'd probably give the series a second chance.

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Sunday, 12 November 2017

Review: The Wrong Stars

The Wrong Stars The Wrong Stars by Tim Pratt
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was a lot of fun, and also has a subtle point to make about abuse and what it leads to (without getting super-graphic).

I don't read much space opera anymore, mainly because so much of it is military, and that doesn't especially interest me. This, however, is more of a classic old-school space opera, suitably updated for today.

The author doesn't have a particularly firm grasp on astrophysics and how acceleration, deceleration, spin, and gravity work, and the book does exhibit the genre trope where somehow thirty or forty years' worth of technological and social change, and apparently no new cultural creations, have been crammed into several centuries; but I can overlook those issues for the sake of a gripping plot, a great ensemble cast, and sparkling banter. Banter such as:

"Have I told you lately that I'm a genius?"
"I'm not sure. I don't usually listen when you talk."

Rather than the usual ragtag freighter crew skirting the edges of the law, possibly from the outside of it, we have here a group of what are more-or-less law enforcement contractors - think something between corporate security, bounty hunters/skip-tracers, and deputized civilians, with just a touch of Judge Dredd. This is a good variation on a classic formula, and drives parts of the plot satisfactorily.

There are aliens, but only one kind (or so the characters initially believe) - the Liars, squidlike beings so called because you can't trust anything they say about their origins, their history, their agenda, or even what they were doing this morning. The plot that unfolds is cosmic in its implications, with a nod to Mythos, among other sources, but remains at the intimate level of a couple of ships' crews.

Speaking of intimate, if lesbian romance is a problem for you, or characters of nonbinary gender, you're probably going to want to skip this one (unless you need to feed your outrage, I suppose - I don't know what goes on in your head). It doesn't get explicit, though.

There's plenty of adventure, varied and entertaining, and the author is highly capable and assuredly in control of his material. I thoroughly enjoyed his urban fantasy Heirs of Grace, which took a genre that's been feeling mined out and flooded with bad copies and made it fresh, interesting, and intelligent again. That's why I picked this one up, and I wasn't disappointed; he does the same for space opera, giving us a book that's both richly entertaining and also has a bit of depth and weight to it.

Fans of L.J. Cohen and Ann Leckie are likely to enjoy this one.

I received a review copy via Netgalley.

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