Sunday, September 29, 2013

Review: Shadow and Bone (Grisha #1) by Leigh Bardugo

Shadow and Bone (The Grisha, #1)Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I'd been reading rave reviews of this book. I thought I'd learned my lesson about that by now. Apparently not. While it was a perfectly readable book, there was nothing to distinguish it from a slew of other YA paranormals.

This book was like YA Mad Libs. (Girl's name) lives in the magical land of (made-up place), where the elites can (magical thing). (Same girl's name) doesn't fit in and isn't pretty, and is in love with (boy's name). Then she finds out she's (same magical thing), only special. She's whisked off to (place name) to learn how to use (same magical thing), but it's hard and nobody likes her, except for (another boy's name). Then she's torn between (boy #1) and (boy #2).

It's pure YA paint-by-numbers. While not all YA books follow this plot, it was close enough that I felt like the variations had been pulled from a hat.

In this book, the action is set in Ravka, a fantasy version of Russia, and the girl is Alina Starkov, an orphan. She discovers she's not only a Grisha (magical user), but one who might be able to heal the rift of darkness bisecting her country. The Darkling, the most powerful Grisha in the country, is suddenly paying her special attention, while most of the others are jealous, or They Just Don't Understand Alina's Pain.

The frustrating part of the book is that most of the conflict is internal. Alina needs to figure out how to use her power, how to control it, and how to amplify it. But the answers are all a matter of her figuring things out, or conveniently remembering certain events. Outside conflict stays on the back burner for about 80% of the story, while Alina whines and tries to figure out what's wrong with her. When the plot relies on a character figuring things out, some outside impetus can help. Otherwise, the reader is often left with the distinct impression the narrator is an idiot. She's not, but I was frustrated with waiting for her to be whacked upside the head with a clue-by-four.

I listened to the book on audio, and Lauren Fortgang did a mostly acceptable job. Her Darkling sounded a little too flat for my tastes, but I suppose it was what the narrative called for. My biggest complaint is that, while she was usually able to handle most of the pronunciation, it was inconsistent, and her "typical Russian" accent sounded like Boris Badenov. If I were Russian, I would've been insulted.

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Monday, September 23, 2013

Review: Chimes at Midnight (October Daye #7) by Seanan McGuire

Chimes at Midnight (October Daye, #7)Chimes at Midnight by Seanan McGuire
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the seventh book in a series I'm hopelessly in love with. Every time, I say they get better with each book, and every time, it continues to be true. Each book advances the worldbuilding, develops the characters, reveals plot lines that have been building all series, and thoroughly entertain me. This is how you write a series. Epic fantasy writers, take note.

This book has Toby getting to the bottom of the goblin fruit trade. She uncovers that it's killing changelings, and goes to the Queen to sort it out. Instead, she's banished. She has three days to pack up and go. This being Toby, she isn't about to meekly slink off. Instead, she uses the resources she's been building all series to research how to wriggle out of it. Along the way, she nearly dies several times (but what else is new?), finds new corners of the realm, visits the library, and gets hit in the face with an evil pie.

She also finds out who Quentin's parents are, so, if you've been looking forward to that revelation, it's in this book.

My favorite part of the book is finding out my cat is aptly named. About a year ago, I adopted a brown tabby, and I named him after Tybalt. He's vocal and loyal, and extremely affectionate. He's also distressed if I'm out of his sight for any period of time, and not a fan of dogs or car rides. The fictional Tybalt displays all of these characteristics (though his affection is of a different kind), and, every time he acted like my little Tybalt, it made me happy.

I'm also convinced that the dog park mentions (there are two in so many pages) are Night Vale references. I don't think Ms. McGuire started listening to the podcast until after the final edits were in on this book, but, if nothing else, it might add to her personal amusement. It certainly enhanced mine.

Much is changed of Toby's world in this book, and we get some hints about where this might be leading, or what might have led up to the current situation. I could speculate, but I'd much rather just wait until the next book comes out in a year, and be surprised.

I love this series.

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Monday, September 16, 2013

Review: Metatropolis by Jay Lake, Tobias S. Buckell, Elizabeth Bear, John Scalzi, and Karl Schroeder

MetatropolisMetatropolis by Jay Lake
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was a promotion on Audible, and the premise seemed halfway interesting, so I picked it up. Sadly, it shares a lot of the same problem of most anthologies: inconsistency. It had its high points and its low points, leaving it to average out to "meh."

Metatropolis is a shared-world anthology, meaning that all of the writers set their stories in a near-future dystopia they developed collaboratively. This near future is violent, corporate-owned, and clannish. The police force is run by Edgewater Corporation, and its representatives are nicknamed "Eddies." Cities are independent enclaves, scrabbling for survival, and most jobs are picked up on the equivalent of Craigslist, in a process called turking. They're fleeting, and a person may never meet his or her employer. Technology is a few steps ahead, except where people are too busy figuring out the whole survival thing to mess around with wires and shiny toys. John Scalzi provides interim narration, explaining the concept behind the anthology and introducing each story.

The first story is "In the Forests of Night," a military SF-esque tale of the fall of Cascadiaopolis. That's a crunchy granola settlement in the Cascades, and, for reasons that are never entirely clear to me, some corporation owner needs to break in. The story is told through several different perspectives, and introduces several characters. As it's a short story, this was a poor choice, and I wound up confused and annoyed. If this had been a later story, I might've been able to follow it better, but later stories seem to hinge on this city serving as a warning to the others.

"Stochasti-City" by Tobias Buckell is the second, and it takes place in Detroit. Our hero, Reginald, is turked out for a job, and it screws him over. When he goes for payback, they hire him to cripple the city without turning it into a war zone. Reginald is clever on his feet, and the patter he uses to address the reader is almost musical. It was a vast improvement over the first story, and I finally started to get a handle on the world. The message in the story is rather anvilicious, though; they didn't need Reginald to agree with their message to agree to work with them, so why all the persuading?

"The Red in the Sky is Our Blood" by Elizabeth Bear is also set in Detroit, perhaps a few months after the events of the previous story. We see its marks in the city Katy, our no-nonsense narrator, rides her bike around. She gets an offer of employment, too, but her instinct is to run from these well-organized idealists, who may be just trying to trap her for her Russian Mob ex-husband. Her caution is understandable, and her exhaustion at being alone in such a harsh landscape is palpable.

"Utere Nihil non Extra Quiritationem Sui" ("Use everything but the squeal") is John Scalzi's offering, and it's a third strong point in an anthology that had so much potential. He tells of regular city life in New St. Louis (same as the old St. Louis, but for some energy conservation and socialist values). The story is told through the eyes of a young man getting his first job, and getting himself tangled up in an attempted insurrection. Benjamin starts off as a jerk, as the narrative points out to us, but his breezy attitude is easy to latch onto, and he's certainly more likable than the guy kidnapping the girl he likes.

The last story is "To Hie from Far Cilinea" by Karl Schroeder, which involves augmented reality, 3D games, the next generation of Google Glasses, and radioactive material, on top of the above trappings. It adds layers of complexity to a world that's already alien, and I felt like the author was doing it just to mess with me. The story is told through Gennady Malianov, a Ukranian agent who retrieves radioactive material. This job involves going through several layers of augmented reality, and we find out he's nearly crippled by social phobia, a factoid that may have been there to make Gennady more sympathetic, but that doesn't go anywhere. The ploy doesn't work, and I'm left swamped with bizarre details about an esoteric world, navigated by someone I don't particularly like. At least it was over quickly.

If all of the stories had been as strong as the first three, this would've earned a much higher rating. As the two others bookended this anthology (and Scalzi rhapsodized about how much I'd love Schroeder's world-building in his commentary), it gets a "meh."

The anthology is narrated by John Scalzi, with five different narrators for the five different stories. It worked well, and all the narrators knew what they were doing. I have no complaints about the audio quality.

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Review: A Death at Pemberley by P.D. James

Death Comes to PemberleyDeath Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I've been branching out to some of the Austen pastiches lately, now that I've read all of the novels published during Jane Austen's lifetime. I'd heard some of them were really good, and this one is often listed as one of the books worth reading. I'm sad to say, I felt like it didn't add a whole lot to the world or characters, though it was plausible enough.

Five years after the events of Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy are preparing to hold a ball when Lydia shows up, distraught that her husband has run off into the woods chasing his old friend, Denny, and they heard gunshots. Lydia is prone to melodrama, but, it turns out, her panic is justified. Denny has been killed by blunt force trauma, and Wickham seems to confess to his murder, except that he's very drunk and upset.

The book goes through the initial investigation, the trial, and the murderer's confession. The matter is far more complicated than it appears, and of course Wickham isn't entirely blameless in the way things play out. He's learned very little in the last five years, and grown up not at all.

The story references characters from many of Jane Austen's novels, not just Pride and Prejudice. The Elliotts are mentioned, as is Emma's good friend Harriet. There may be other crossovers, as well, but those are the ones I recognized.

The book has a lot of details not included in most of Austen's work. There's a lot of discussion of servants and what keeps Elizabeth busy from day to day. The investigation and trial are certainly matters Austen never dealt with, and war and drunkenness are discussed more openly. We get some insight into Darcy's internal life, and the upbringing of his and Elizabeth's children is discussed in passing.

Mostly, though, the story seems like a pointless inclusion, adding nothing to the Austen oeuvre. Nor is it much of a mystery novel; the characters do very little investigation of the matter, and the confession falls into their laps without any intervention on their part. The story, itself, felt uneven and badly paced, and I kept getting jarred out of the story with its sudden leaps.

If you're a Jane Austen fan, unless you're a diehard who'll pick up everything associated with her name, you might want to give this one a pass. I didn't feel like this was a particularly strong related work.

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Review: Shoggoth's Old Peculiar by Neil Gaiman

Shoggoth's Old PeculiarShoggoth's Old Peculiar by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was a short story Audible was giving out for free to promote
  The Ocean at the End of the Lane

. It included a bonus chapter of the Ocean audiobook.

The short story is originally from "Smoke and Mirrors." It's about Benjamin Lassiter, an American from a small Texas dry town, in more senses of the word than average rainfall. He's decided to do a walking tour of the British coastline during the off season, believing a guidebook that assures him that'll work out well. He winds up in a town called Innsmouth, and hasn't read enough to know why it's a bad idea to drink the local beer.

The story is funny, but not in a laugh-out-loud way. It's slyly so, and funnier the more one knows about H.P. Lovecraft's fiction. Benjamin knows even less about that than he does about beer and its effects, and the story hinges on his being completely unaware of what he's gotten himself into.

The story was narrated by the author, who does a fine job reading his words, though his American accent could use some work. He can be forgiven for that, for his pleasant British accent that carries the narration and other characters' dialogue.

The story is no longer offered through Audible, so I feel lucky to have pounced on the offer while it was still around.

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Friday, September 13, 2013

Review: The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

The Golem and the JinniThe Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

My younger sister and I were taking a long car trip together last month, and I was looking for ways to pass the time. I had Audible credits, so she suggested I pick up this book, as it seemed relevant to both of our interests, and she'd heard good things about it. I went in with no expectations whatever, except that it would pass the time.

We only made it about halfway through the book together, but I finished listening as quickly as I could. It builds slowly, at first, with simple, straightforward language, often describing newly introduced characters' entire lives. The story takes place in New York City, amongst the immigrant communities, so the narrative often halted to explain what a person was doing in America. But, after the scene is set and the players established, the story that unwinds is tightly plotted and fascinating.

It turns out that each introduced character plays an important role in the narrative. Even one who seemed to only be there to show how basely another character behaved wound up helping in an essential way. The plot is never bogged down with the numerous characters and perspective shifts; rather, they carry it.

The fantastical elements of this book stand in for human traits, often exaggerated or that the author wishes to explore within the story. The titular jinni's fiery nature makes him a reckless pleasure seeker who lives in the moment, while the golem is grounded, unchanging, and dependable. Their friendship is unlikely, but entirely believable the way it unfolds. Similarly, I can't imagine that many Jewish widows mingled with many Syrian hotheads in the New York City of 1899.

The golem's creation seemed, to me, like a metaphor for the preparation young women might've gone through to become the perfect wives, only to be whisked away from everything they know. Chava is made to order, her specifications sounding a lot like the list a young man seeking a bride might have presented to a matchmaker. She's lost and confused when she reaches New York City, but her fantastic nature makes her far more prepared than human women would've been. Nonetheless, I feel she represents the strength and staid nature of a lot of women immigrants.

Ahmad, on the other hand, appears even more suddenly in Little Syria, and is no less disoriented. He's a prisoner, kept in human form, and his restlessness is perfectly understandable. For a being of fire who lived by himself most of the time and didn't understand humans, New York City is stifling. His characterization captures the spirit of those who didn't find what they expected, and whose skills were undervalued in the new world they found themselves in, but made the most of what they could do. His wandering also gives the author a chance to show us a lot of the New York City we don't read about in history books, in a way that never felt like an infodump.

Within the book, such concepts as free will, what makes a person human, the nature of the soul, ethics, spirituality, consequences, and nature versus nurture are all explored. The book offers no easy answers to these questions, and it never browbeats the reader with the author's opinion. Sometimes Chava is right to be cautious, and sometimes Ahmad's impulsivity serves him well. Neither is a mouthpiece, though I found Chava the more sympathetic of the two.

The ending is bittersweet, but hopeful. Or maybe most of the bitterness came from the fact that I was finished listening to it. The language isn't flowery or poetic, but it does present a fascinating world, and uses it to make the reader think about the world we live in. If you have any interest in historical fiction with fantasy elements, pick this up. For me, the multicultural approach was a bonus, not a barrier, but it's quite approachable even if you aren't familiar with these cultures.

As I mentioned above, I read this book on audio, read by George Guidall. He's an excellent narrator, and was well up to the task of imitating several different accents. I couldn't have told you what the difference was between a Christian Syrian and a Muslim one, but Guidall gave them subtly different accents that easily distinguished them. He also narrated female dialogue well, softening it without affecting a falsetto or screeching.

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Review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

The Ocean at the End of the LaneThe Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was one of the lucky readers who lived close enough to an event to see Neil Gaiman read from this book in person, answer questions, and then sign books, mine included. If you want to read my write-up about the event, it's in this blog entry.

Even without the excitement of meeting the author on his last US signing tour, though, I would've enjoyed this book. It's what I've always waited for in a fantasy novel, but I never realized this is what I lacked.

The book is short, and therefore can be a quick read. But if you read it quickly, you lose the flow of the language, the layers of complexity, the characterizations. The narrator is a middle-aged man, looking back at an event that happened when he was seven but had forgotten until that very moment. The narration has the honesty only a seven-year-old can have, filtered through years of experience and revelation. The young boy is often confused about things the adult understands, which evokes a certain wistfulness and melancholy at the same time.

The character is taking refuge after a funeral (the text never says for who, but, based on the focus of the story, I think it's his father). He goes to the end of the lane, where a girl four years his senior once lived. She called the duck pond "the ocean," and it's gazing at that pond that the unnamed narrator remembers that strange summer. His family had slipped in financial status, and had to take in boarders. One such boarder kills himself in the family car, which leads to the boy's meeting the Hempstock women. It's a grandmother, mother, and daughter (crone, mother, maiden), and the girl's name is Lettie. He goes with her to help put to rest a spirit who's been stirred up by the death, but something goes wrong, and a malevolent woman shows up at his house. He has to use every ounce of courage and strength his little seven-year-old self can muster to banish her, and, of course, there are consequences.

Neil Gaiman has said that he feels there isn't so much as a word wasted in this book, and I agree. Everything that's in there is essential. Every character needs to be there, every event, every detail, all shape this narrative. There are some things that go unwritten or unspoken, and the narrative shapes around those, too, defined by the space they left behind.

I read the hardcover of this book, but I intend to get the audiobook when I want to reread it. I think that could only add to the experience. I think both paper (or electronic) and audio are necessary experiences to absorb this story.

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Thursday, September 5, 2013

Review: Among Others by Jo Walton

Among OthersAmong Others by Jo Walton
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I decided to pick this book up because it won the Hugo for Best Novel, and I'd heard good things about it. In the end, I was left with an unflattering opinion of the entire award process. I can see why a lot of Hugo voters might have liked this story, but I don't think it was the best SF book to come out during the eligibility period.

The book is a series of diary entries written by Morwenna (Mori) Phelps between September 1979 and February 1980, with a brief stop in 1975. She has an injury that makes it difficult to walk, and she has a twin sister who died in some tragedy she doesn't specify until much later in the book, except that she blames her mother for it. Mori is Welsh, and the bulk of the narrative takes place in England, where she feels out of place and lonely.

When the story opens, Mori has run away from her mother, and is living with the father she never knew. His half-sisters send her away to an all-girls' boarding school, where she befriends the librarian and feels even more alone and bemoans the lack of privacy.

Mori can do magic and sees fairies, an ability she says most children grow out of. She says her mother wanted to use magic to grab power for herself, and vows never to become like her. To that end, she decides she won't use magic, except to protect against her mother.

The mother remains a shadowy figure for most of the book. She sends Mori some letters, and pictures of the twins with Mori's image burned out of them. Mori frets about her mother finding her, but the mother's presence is barely felt within the narrative. The bulk of the story is about Mori finding an SF book club at the library, making friends with the members, finding a cute boyfriend with a bad reputation, having awkward conversations with her father, who she calls by his given name, visiting Wales, and, mostly, reading SF books that were current to the late 1970s. Her comments may have been relatable to someone who's read all those books, but I was either mystified, or I didn't agree. I violently dislike Heinlein, so to hear her going on at length about what genius he is rankled, and I honestly don't think Tolkien was the literary god Mori posits him as.

Honestly, it wasn't a bad book, and I might've given it four stars, if not for all the acclaim. But I felt it was transparently pandering to a certain audience, and I was not that audience. If you grew up during that same time period and worship Heinlein and Tolkien, you'll probably like this book a lot more than I did. I just don't think the resonance with that certain audience makes this book worthy of one of the highest genre awards.

I listened to this book on audio, and I happened to listen to it with someone with a better ear for accents than mine. She pointed out how awful the Welsh accent was, and then I couldn't unhear it. The narrator's British accents were fine, but the Welsh was obnoxious and overdone. I recommend a paper copy, unless your ear for accents even worse than mine.

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Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Review: The Way of Kings (The Stormlight Archive #1) by Brandon Sanderson

The Way of Kings (The Stormlight Archive, #1)The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the eighth book in my 2013 TBR Challenge, and it's the longest of them. It's also the first in a series of ten books about this world and these characters.

The world presented in The Way of Kings is harsher than most fantasy landscapes. Instead of dragons and gryphons and wizards, we're dealing with a world with very little magic wielded by people. The animals and even plant life have adapted to a world with harsh, violent storms. Somehow, these storms can produce a magical light, which can be harnessed into stones. From there, it's used for illumination, and to power magical items left behind by heroes who used to be able to wield magic, themselves.

Into this world we have Dalinar, brother to the deceased king and a powerful lord who holds honor above all. And maybe he's going crazy. Then there's Shallan, a young woman out to steal one of these magical devices from the king's daughter, an atheist. Last but not least is Kaladin, a soldier forced into slavery where he doubles as a pack mule and cannon fodder. He's determined to survive, and to help all those in his squad do so, too.

Kaladin's story was the most interesting, to me. He had the greatest struggles, and the greatest potential for growth. Shallan had some intriguing moments, as well, but she was so removed from the other two characters that it was difficult to see how she tied in. Dalinar's arc interested me the least, to the point where I felt relief, not tension, in the final scenes when all looks hopeless for him. I felt the continuing narrative would've been a lot more interesting carried by one of his two sons.

There are several minor characters, some of whom get their own perspective chapters, but all revolves around these three. It doesn't become obvious until the very end how Shallan is relevant to the rest of the story, and, it seems, her narrative may entwine with that of the assassin Szeth. That could be interesting.

A lot of this book is laying groundwork and showing how the world works, so the 1000-page epic does drag in places. It was hope of finding out what happened to Kaladin that kept me going through it. It's hard to believe Sanderson can sustain this for 10 books, but I guess we'll see. He did find a good place to wrap this one up, while leaving enough threads open that I really want to read the next one, now. (It comes out in March 2014.)

Overall, I recommend you don't start this book until you have some time to make your way through it. I have a feeling the portents are in the details, and you'll miss them if you quickly skim through to get to the good parts. This is a solidly built world, as you can expect from Brandon Sanderson. I just hope all of the characters are up to carrying this story.

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