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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Thursday, 9 November 2017

Review: Toru: Wayfarer Returns

Toru: Wayfarer Returns Toru: Wayfarer Returns by Stephanie R. Sorensen
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I'm going to start with what I learned from the author's afterword, and work backwards.

The author has been a foreign-exchange student in Japan, where (it seems) she was welcomed, treated with great hospitality, and came to love the country and its people. This is great, but it also leads to the main problem of the book.

The problem is that the author has then written what's essentially a wish-fulfillment fantasy about how great it would be if Japan had become that peaceful, hospitable, amiable country more or less directly from being a rigid, feudal despotism under the shoguns, without going through all the pain of the invasion by Commodore Perry's Black Fleet, the subsequent long and difficult process of modernization, and World War II.

Instead, she shows us - or, often, tells us about - a Japan in which a young man, sent clandestinely to America to spy and bring back its technology, is not executed on his return (as was the law) but convinces everyone - fearful peasants, harsh feudal lords, everyone - to modernize in an absurdly short space of time, leapfrogging American technology so that they can confront Perry on his arrival with a superior force.

I didn't believe it. I didn't believe (having worked on projects for 20 years) that such a major program could be completed so quickly; I didn't believe that an illiterate peasant blacksmith could become, first an engineer (maybe sort of believable), then a pilot, then captain of an airship, then admiral of the fleet; I didn't believe that someone we're told was a conservative old feudal lord would let his daughter dress and behave like a man just because she wanted to; I didn't believe that everyone would listen to a commoner; I didn't believe that the feudal lords would do away with their own power because of love for country; and I certainly didn't believe, though we were repeatedly told, that the heroes would be executed. That was the problem: there was a lot of telling, and what we were told contradicted, as often as not, what we were shown, and I didn't believe any of it. And then what we'd been told, over and over again, just ended up not being true, because it had to not be true or else the story would be tragic. And there was no believable reason why it wasn't true.

As a result, it barely squeaks three stars, and that's only because there's a good heart behind this unbelievable story, and I don't want to be harsh to it.

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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 Tor.com, 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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