Review: Death Threads

December 31, 2013 at 7:55 pm (cozy mystery, mystery)

Death Threads
Death Threads by Elizabeth Lynn Casey
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A librarian main character and a sewing circle of friends – what’s not to like, at least for this particular reader? I haven’t read the first book, but it’s copiously referred to in this one since its events happened only a short time before.

I admit I was completely taken in by the incorrect explanation for what was going on with Calhoun’s disappearance. I’m not entirely convinced about Tori Sinclair as an amateur sleuth, but her lessons in How to Be Southern are actually quite interesting to this northerner. I enjoyed it just fine, for what it is – a little light reading.

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Review: Stardust

December 31, 2013 at 7:50 pm (mystery)

Stardust by Robert B. Parker
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Spenser undertakes another rescue job in this novel, which is loaded with references to earlier novels in the series and pretty obviously draws on Parker’s experience with the filming of the Spenser TV series. Not recommended for readers who haven’t read a bunch of the earlier Spenser novels – while I think the author does a good job of laying out the relationship among Spenser, Susan, and Hawk without doing a lot of explaining, the fact that I know so much about them already may be clouding my judgment on that.

Secondary character-wise, as usual it’s full of interesting people, dangerous people, and some very, very damaged people. The mystery is about who is threatening the very talented by mentally unstable Jill Joyce – who won’t actually say exactly how she’s being threatened or who she thinks it is. There is, in fact, a reasonable explanation for that, though at this point in the evolution of the American mystery novel it might be considered a bit hackneyed.

Not one of my favorite Spenser novels, but not a bad one either.

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Review: Ring of Swords

December 31, 2013 at 7:33 pm (science fiction)

Ring of Swords
Ring of Swords by Eleanor Arnason
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is what I call a “thinky” book, where important concepts are front and center; it is sociological science fiction, where it’s not the aliens’ military technology that’s important but their culture, and especially how they wind up interacting with humans.

It’s also very well written, and completely unwilling to give either side all the moral high ground. The book, with the very intelligent and somewhat cold Anna Perez and the very worried Nicholas Sanders at its center, peels back multiple layers of assumptions about gender and power dynamics to expose some very interesting notions about human and alien societies. Not to mention about the myth of “it’s always been this way.”

I don’t think there’s really any way to describe it further without spoiling it and undermining it, too. Just keep going through the somewhat clunky “military intelligence isn’t” setup to get to the main part of the story. I think it compares favorably to certain high concept SF by the likes of C. J. Cherryh and Ursula K. LeGuin.

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Review: The Kassa Gambit

December 31, 2013 at 7:19 pm (science fiction)

The Kassa Gambit
The Kassa Gambit by M.C. Planck
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’ve read this book before – or versions of it: far-traveling small trader meets double agent meets interplanetary conspiracy; hijinks ensue. A pretty good read.

This one has the kind of creative variations and embellishments that make it worth reading the basic story again, at least in my estimation. These lie mainly in the cultural/historical/political realms. There is, for example, a basically fascist organization called the League that is working toward the takeover of a basically democratic society (that’s where the double agent comes in). The small trader is looking for her mother’s planet, which she doesn’t even know the name of (but she has a high-tech artifact from it, which turns out to be very handy at a key point in the plot).

Planck puts in some interesting thoughts about technological stagnation in a basically unthreatened interstellar society; the trader’s home planet underwent sociopolitical catastrophe that caused her to flee it, which is nicely different from the usual reasons for fleeing a planet. Plenty of interesting secondary characters too, and the main characters are quite well done. Taken as a whole, however, the plot was unfortunately predictable.

So, it doesn’t quite reach the level of brilliance, in my humble opinion. Except maybe in the climactic action sequence, which seems to take place in that altered state of consciousness that lies on the other side of terror and despair. That was impressive.

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Review: The Rithmatist

December 27, 2013 at 10:17 am (fantasy, negativity, teen)

The Rithmatist
The Rithmatist by Brandon Sanderson
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Why have I been waffling over this review for months? It’s not like it’s ever going to be read by more than a dozen people or so. I expect it’s because Sanderson is a VPA (Very Popular Author) and I’m about to be really critical of this book. But you know what, Sanderson fans? Tough. These are my opinions, and you don’t have to agree with me. You don’t even have to read them. Go on, stop reading. Shoo!

Now, then. Oh, wait, one more thing: SPOILERS AHEAD.

This was a good read, up to a point, but flawed in several important ways. The way I see it is that Sanderson had two reasonably original ideas – animated and sometimes dangerous chalk drawings, and a colonized country made up of a vast collection of islands – and pasted them over top of a bog-standard school story and the real world circa 1890-1910. To my eyes, the paste is rather lumpy and the surface of these ideas got quite wrinkled and torn.

The book is convincing when describing the chalklings in action and even the science/magic behind the creation and control of them by Rithmatists. The larger world-building, however, is much less so. Even after 200 years of tangling with the “wild chalklings,” it seems, the general populace and also the non-Rithmatist educated elite are profoundly ignorant about virtually everything to do with them – and so is the main character (Joel) and, worst of all, so is the reader. Apparently the wild chalklings just appear from a dark tower or something, off in what might be the upper Midwest or Nevada (except that it’s all islands with ripped-from-the-real-world names) and the Rithmatists who aren’t teaching or on leave are all there, trying to keep them contained.

By the way, Sanderson did avoid the major sin of pretending that the Native Americans were never there, instead saying that the wild chalklings drove them all south into the still-surviving Aztec Empire – ooookay then. Apparently it’s still the Mighty Whities who have to save the world. With SCIENCE!

… And religion: one of the things I really balked at is the notion that what looks like the High Anglican church has made all its saints Rithmatists, despite the fact that (as far as I can make out) chalklings are apparently a strictly New World phenomenon and Rithmatism a (relatively) modern response to them. Oy gevalt, he’s thinking I should believe this stuff? Old religions are really set in their ways. – Of course, it could be a new religion that’s taken over and pretends that it’s really just the old one, but nothing even hints at that (nor is it necessary: newbetterdifferent religions seem to do just fine with claiming superiority to the old ones here in the real world, nu?). Or is it really an old religion that is somehow congruent with the science/magic needed to deal with these New World chalklings? Argh. It makes no sense.

Finally, you would think that in a region consisting of a bunch of islands, creatures that are essentially drawings would have a lot of trouble getting from one island to the next. Right? Drawings, expanses of salt water, logic. This was bothering me for a good four-fifths of the book, until the BIG REVEAL: wild chalklings can inhabit and take over human beings (and probably animals, I should think)! Water problem solved. And then there’s the SLIGHTLY LESS BIG REVEAL: Rithmatists are inhabited by what, for lack of vocabulary provided by the book, I’ll call Good Chalklings, which bear a great resemblance to ancient petroglyphs.

Now, why the heck is all this a SECRET? In fact, how COULD it be? 200 years, remember. Huge chunks of the book’s plot were spent on Joel attempting to find out what everybody (or at least every educated person) should’ve known – in other words, on finding out how the world he actually lives in works. It’s like Sanderson felt that the plot about somebody murdering Rithmatist students with chalklings and the plot about Joel learning more about his deceased chalkmaker father and the plot about Joel becoming friends with Melody-who-draws-unicorns just weren’t enough to carry a novel. Honestly, the secrets of chalkmaking for Rithmatists would’ve been interesting and much less of a plot-based stupidity than the Truth about Chalklings.

And then there’s the thing that utterly killed my enjoyment of the novel, right at the end. I’d put up with the things I’ve already mentioned well enough. I tolerated the School Story 101 material, partly because I like Melody (I like characters who stubbornly refuse to conform to expectations) and partly because it was really quite well done in an “oh look, that was really quite well done” technical way – you know how you can appreciate a good magic trick even if you can see how it was done? Like that. And I have to say that when Joel joins Melody in the dueling circle (yes there is dueling) it really is a stand-up-and-cheer moment, I loved it.

But the thing that really upsets me is that Joel really wants to be a Rithmatist, but for what turns out to be boring scheduling reasons he never had a proper “inception ceremony” in which he might have become one. (It appears, by the way, that the local priest in charge of these things doesn’t even know or care how important the ceremony proper can be – whyyyyyy?? Because plot!) With a little persistence and support from friends and authority figures, though, Joel finally gets one right near the end of the book.

And two things happened that pissed me off. First, after all the setting up and setting up and setting up this event, Joel didn’t become a Rithmatist. Apparently not every reader minds having their genre expectations stomped on by the author for no good reason, but I do. Second, the no good reason is this: somewhere around here (I was too angry for the details to stick in my mind) it was casually revealed that there are only supposed to be X number of Rithmatists at one time, so there was no point in Joel going through the inception ceremony (which you’re only allowed to do once!) unless there was an opening. Which he and his professor friend would’ve known about, since they’d been laboriously going through the rolls of Rithmatists, all without a single mention of this key fact. Unless (BIG REVEAL) the fact that a number of Rithmatists (including the apparently-murdered students) had been captured by wild chalklings, who then carried them into the inside of their human hosts, threw off the count … but there was no mention of the missing-person problem, or even of this possibility. Which, again, after 200 years of experience? No.

Yes, I’ve noticed that I’m willing to give a pass to the idea that two-dimensional creatures can capture three-dimensional beings, turn them two-dimensional, and carry them to the inside of other three-dimensional beings, but NOT to the idea that knowledge crucial to the survival of a civilization has been buried in the secret sections of university libraries for generations. The one thing is a wild and interesting idea fit for exploring in a fantasy novel. The other requires generations of human beings to be so criminally stupid that I want to drag them out of the book so I can punch them in the face.

See? It’s actually quite simple. Overall, the book was written to withhold vital knowledge from all of the characters and the reader for no better reason than SURPRISE! Or to generate extra tension. Or whatever. I hate that, and I’d give it one star except that it really was a pretty good read, up to a point.

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Review: Aunt Dimity and the Duke

December 9, 2013 at 8:52 am (cozy mystery, mystery)

Aunt Dimity and the Duke
Aunt Dimity and the Duke by Nancy Atherton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A very pleasant, mild-mannered, and amusing mystery. The conceit of the series is not a secret: Aunt Dimity is a ghost, who uses her contacts among the living to gently manipulate people, for their own benefit.

The big reveal in this one actually had me greatly distressed for a few minutes, until it was resolved. I’m also, full disclosure, quite biased toward this one by its main character’s passion for gardening. Even better, English country gardens, and there’s a great English country house, too. By the seaside, no less.

Overall, though, the various elements of the story worked quite well together, despite their apparent heterogeneity. I was impressed.

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Review: Bastion

December 8, 2013 at 3:30 pm (fantasy)

Bastion by Mercedes Lackey
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Better than the previous volume … or was it Volume 3? I have a feeling I missed one somewhere, or maybe a couple of them are blurring together in my memory. The fact is that the series is at least two volumes too long – artificially extended, in fact, by attempting (or pretending?) to have three main characters instead of one. I like Mags, but not enough to really want to spend this much time with him and his friends. And his story is interesting, but not enough to justify a five-volume series.

There’s also the way that the answers to all the questions about his origins more or less arrive, rather than being found as a result of his efforts. Everything works out a little too conveniently, as is common in Lackey’s less spectacular works. Still, it was a good enough read, and much better-paced than at least one of the others.

A last thought: It may be that I feel that another book of Valdemar’s history should have had a more direct relation to that history – that Mags should have a more obvious impact on that history (and I say this despite his helping prevent the assassination of the monarch). This relative lack of impact makes the whole thing seem like busywork rather than a meaningful contribution to the history.

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Review: Hostile Takeover

November 29, 2013 at 12:31 pm (science fiction, space opera)

Hostile Takeover
Hostile Takeover by Susan Shwartz
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I wanted to like this book more, but the future world portrayed by Shwartz pissed me off so much that I had to set it aside repeatedly so I could cool off.

It’s actually a typical extrapolation-from-the-present near-future SF world, in which financial-services veteran Shwartz contemplates what would happen if the whole world were dominated by that industry. More than it is now, that is. So much so that people are divided into three classes: the poor, stuffed into crime-ridden crowded “insulae” with only the thinnest thread of hope of escape; the wealthy, insulated from (but not immune to) financial risk; and the middle class, who live in fear of losing a job, falling into debt, and being shipped off to the asteroidal colonies in cryogenic suspension and to indentured servitude (or even involuntary organ donation).

The protagonist, CC, escaped from poverty into the middle class and lives in that fear (waking up multiple a week in sweating, terrified nightmares). The inevitable result of these circumstances, in which even a brilliant and creative analyst like CC could easily wind up on the garbage heap, is that the middle class salarymen behave pretty much like ferrets tied up in a sack. Apparently they are not really paid all that well, making it very hard for them to stay out of debt (and unable to save up for large expenses?), their credit ratings are monitored constantly for imprudent discretionary spending, and their behavior is expected to fall within rigid but unwritten lines at all times. Otherwise they get “downchecked” and if their fiscal and social credit ratings get too low, they’ll suddenly become unemployable.

As I said, terrifying and infuriating. Shwartz makes CC’s terror and determination very real – as well as her intelligence and serious research addiction (which endeared her to me considerably, of course).

The plot revolves around CC’s audit of questionable activities at Vesta Colony, various attempted murders of CC, and eventual discoveries that were great to read but don’t add much to the spectrum of SF ideas. It’s the setting that does that.

Pay no attention to the cover, by the way. It should’ve been a representation of CC’s 3D data matrix, not a ridiculous intimation of physical combat that didn’t happen.

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Review: A Brother’s Price

November 23, 2013 at 12:27 am (fantasy, science fiction)

A Brother's Price
A Brother’s Price by Wen Spencer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A person’s favorite books can be – are – intensely personal. A favorite book may not have the most amazing writing or worldbuilding or plot or characters, and yet be just the right book for certain readers. For such a book and such a reader, a review is rather pointless. Which is why I haven’t gotten around to writing a review of this book until now, even though I usually re-read it a couple of times a year.

Consider, for example, the worldbuilding here: it’s muddy. Is this another planet? A post-apocalyptic former United States? An alternate history of some kind? There’s no way to know. I’m inclined toward the post-apocalyptic US, because of some of the names (“Renssellaer” just shouts familiarity with New York state to me, though it’s spelled a bit wrong) and because the uneven tech and science levels suggest that someone, somewhere, has access to a smattering of “ancient texts.” A date in the 1500s is mentioned at some point, suggesting that it’s been a very long time since a new calendar was started, based (I suspect) on the teachings of seven prophets of a pantheon headed by Hera. But there’s absolutely no way to be sure; it’s completely irrelevant to the narrative, and none of it’s actually explained. This is the kind of thing that’s guaranteed to drive a certain segment of the f&sf reading public absolutely nuts, so if you’re one of them, I wouldn’t suggest trying to read it.

On the social plane is, of course, the conceit emphasized in the book: that for some reason, at some point in the past (and continuing to the present), live births of males cratered. As a result, 95% or more of the population is female, and they have line marriages – one man marries a family of sisters, and also takes on what we would consider a female role. Males are also considered property, and the “brother’s price” of the title refers to the money a batch of sisters can get for their (usually one, if they’re lucky) brother, if they don’t swap for another family’s brother so they can have a husband. This, a topic of great relevance to all the characters, gets quite a bit of attention in the narrative.

The plot is actually a rather simple one of problematic romance between Jerin Whistler, a farmers’ son, and the princesses of the boringly named “Queensland,” with a side order of high-level intrigue, treason, and murder. (Plus steamboats, for those who are interested.)

What I like about the book is, I think, actually two things. First, most of the characters have thoughts and opinions about their own society, not all of them positive or happy; the inherent problems of such a society are out in the open and sometimes discussed, just like the inherent problems in our own society. Second, the themes of love for and responsibility toward one’s family that run through the book. Jerin doesn’t like the risk of being married into a family he won’t like, but he also knows that his sisters really need a husband and the money his marriage can bring.

And there’s a third thing: the way the Whistlers see some of the things that happen as what they call “a shining coin”: a chance for brilliant success or even just survival that they can have if they only reach out and catch it – and are lucky. I see it as the thing that ties the whole book together, and for intensely personal reasons, is probably the real reason why I love this book.

Your mileage will probably vary. But that’s okay. Wen Spencer obviously wrote this book specifically for me.

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Review: The Raven Boys

November 22, 2013 at 6:16 pm (fantasy, teen)

The Raven Boys
The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Finishing a book with a resigned feeling of “Oh, of course, it’s a trilogy” is not a good sign. In fact, it’s a real shame in this case because I could have really liked this book, but instead I feel, well, resigned about it. The ending was clever and well done, and the climax actually succeeds at being credible by having been set up, invisibly in the background, for quite a while. But.

But what?

The book strives for mythic sweep while also containing a gleeful jumble of psychics and pseudoscience made real, among other elements that ‘twould be spoilery to discuss. (I will say, however, that the subplot about Noah was excellent.) But to my mind, the scope of the tale is too small for multiple volumes. It is set up – or at least that’s how it came across to me – to be the story of a Tragic Hero, not an Epic Quest. Think Orpheus, not Odysseus. No doubt the Tragic Hero thinks he’s the hero of an epic quest, and perhaps his author does too, but as far as I can see, all that’s at stake is the personal fate of him and several people close to him. That’s not epic.

So what I wanted was for the book to end with the tragic death foretold at the beginning. As I remarked while reading it, I like the Tragic Hero enough that his death would be tragic, but not enough that I want him to live. But it didn’t happen. The story veered off to become a the story of Sacrifice and Redemption of one of his friends, instead. And while that was a good story, certainly, well-done and well-characterized, it was not the story that the book appeared to be setting up in the first third, or even half.

So this book is quite good, but muddled in execution. Perhaps eventually the Tragic Hero will die, but I have doubts.

I also found the prose annoying in spots, because it seemed like every single character’s point of view contained deeply poetic insights and imagery. I like that just fine when it’s just one or two characters, or when the book is clearly written with an omniscient narrator, but in this case it just wound up feeling overdone and occasionally irksome.

I could probably also quibble about the character of Blue, the kooky magical-battery girl, but I actually like her too much as a person. So there’s that.

Worth reading, I’d say, but not spectacular and not something I’ll be adding to my personal library.

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